Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Sometimes truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's better, which is the case with Terry McDermott's Perfect Soldiers and Andre Dubus III's The Garden of Last Days. Both works attempt to reconstruct the activities of the 9/11 hijackers, but Dubus' novel is a limp reimagining with shallow and floppy characters, while McDermott's book, filled with information gleaned from interviews, phone calls and e-mails, ultimately proves to be much more engrossing.
Dubus, who also wrote House of Sand and Fog, follows the hijackers on their last nights in Florida, where they visit a seedy strip club, ruminate on paradise, and discuss their revulsion to Western decadence and sinfulness. At the same time, stripper and single mother April is left without a babysitter for her three-year-old daughter, so she hauls her along to the strip club, where she's promptly kidnapped by a drunk customer while April entertains Bassam, one of the hijackers.
That Bassam is one of the hijackers is almost incidental to the plot. Despite sprinkling Bassam's inner monologues with a few Arabic words, Dubus fails at really getting inside Bassam's head, and he's one of the least interesting characters, which is saying something in a novel otherwise populated by stock figures: the stripper/single mommy with the heart of gold, the violent ex-husband who spends his time mooning around the dancers. Bassam noodles around Florida and is alternately licentious and condemning of the Western women with their low-cut T-shirts and shorts, but there's no real revelation to be found here.
In contrast, McDermott's book (portions of which were published in earlier forms in the Washington Post and New York Times) painstakingly reconstructs the paths of some of the hijackers, through training camps in Afghanistan to university in Hamburg and eventually to the United States. In doing so, McDermott reveals surprising connections in a global web and, more effectively than any of the numerous intelligence reports that began spewing forth after 9/11, shows both how nebulous and obvious the strands of information leading to the men were in the years before the attack.