The doomed bump in the night

In his quietly wrenching novel "House of Sand and Fog," Andre Dubus III set his characters on a collision course and drew them together with grim inexorability.

Dubus has tried something similar in "The Garden of Last Days," but this time the forces of darkness are less subtle. And the calamity need not be character-driven. One of Dubus' principals here is a Sept. 11 terrorist preparing for his date with destiny. That means that this story comes equipped with a foregone conclusion.

But the Saudi terrorist, Bassam, is only one doomed figure in this book's elaborate scheme. There are others who, in less earthshaking ways, may also be headed for disaster. Chief among them is a stripper who is named April but is sometimes called Spring (her stage name), whose path crosses Bassam's on one fateful, long and slow evening in Florida. Dubus has based this part of his story on fact, extrapolating from the way some of the real terrorists chose to spend time in fleshpots before bidding farewell to the flesh.

On a night early in September 2001, April has a baby-sitting emergency. Jean, the elderly woman who usually looks after April's 3-year-old daughter, is out of commission. And April has no one else with whom she can leave the little girl. So Franny is parked in one part of the tawdry Puma Club for Men while, in another part of the same building, April (as Spring) is roped into satisfying Bassam's curiosity. Finding himself tantalized in a country full of "uncovered women who in the kingdom would be stoned to death," he wants to know about heathen, sinful, naked women. The terrorist in training wants something else, too. He wants this woman to explain herself. When he waves $100 bills at Spring, he is, at least to some extent, paying her to talk.

"The Garden of Last Days" explores the cultural chasm between Bassam's world and Spring's. With a plot fueled by the certitude that something terrible will happen, this narrative may mean to recall the devastating forward motion of Russell Banks' "Continental Drift." But Dubus shows none of Banks' anguished insight into such a clash of values and attitudes. Instead he often treats this book as an occasion for easy irony, as in the way April has left Franny to watch Disney videos. Thus the child can immerse herself in "The Little Mermaid" despite the smoke, loud music, raucous men and tawdry, real-life women surrounding her.

Every aspect of the Puma Club's operation is described here -- like the stricture that women paid to take off their clothes are in big trouble with the club's owner if they take off their shoes. This part of the book goes on for a good 200 pages' worth of stripper-world ambience, an element much more attention-getting in "The Garden of Last Days" than is writerly acuity. And by the way, April is one of those sentimentalized strippers whose pride, dignity and humanity are the real reasons men think she's attractive.

Dubus goes on either to deepen the story -- or clutter it, depending on your point of view -- by introducing A.J., an embittered loser who gets kicked out of the club. A.J. cannot see his own little boy because A.J. has a violent streak, and his ex-wife got a restraining order to keep him away. What will happen when A.J. crosses paths with a substitute child, Franny, whose mother isn't minding her?

In a book populated by dangerously disaffected, sex-deprived, deeply misogynistic men, A.J. heightens the atmosphere of menace. But the real focus of Dubus' attention is often Bassam, who poses a danger so much greater than anything the other characters can imagine. What brought Bassam to the brink of martyrdom? How unwavering is his moral rectitude? What world does he come from? What if he discovers at the last minute that even depraved Westerners have their humanity? What if Bassam discovers his own?

"The Garden of Last Days" would be a vastly better book if Dubus had an unusual understanding of Bassam's nature. As it is, this novel compiles what is already known about the Florida-based hijackers without envisioning much else. The book has Bassam's own father expressing disapproval.

"You have never been a bright boy, Bassam, so you must listen to me carefully," the father is remembered to have said. "Jihad is this: It is a struggle within yourself, that is all. It is a struggle to live as Allah wishes us to live. As good people. Do you understand? As good people."

The anger of other characters in "The Garden of Last Days" refracts some of Bassam's inner turmoil. To that extent this book's ambitions are clear. Yet its inability to grasp and fathom its true subject means that when the cataclysm arrives on Sept. 11, its dramatic effect is both unearned and long overdue. And when April/Spring is at long last asked about the man she knew so briefly but shatteringly, all she can provide is a platitude. He was "like a boy," she says. "Just some drunk and lonely boy."