With the rash of recent fiction on 9/11, and with daily news reports about Iraq, terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, one wonders whether a novelist can say anything new on such subjects. Further, one wonders why a novelist like John Updike, typically drawn to neglected patches of our national story involving the quotidian and middling, would turn to such heavily discussed, even sensational material.
While "Terrorist," Updike's 22nd novel, may not be his best, it is vivid and compelling. It shows what fiction can do with a subject that seems talked out. Through its access to the interior life and its ability to create empathy, "Terrorist" takes us inside its subjects, enabling us to see Islamic fundamentalism and American decay in personal, immediate ways.
Updike allows us to enter the mind of a young Muslim as he walks the halls of his high school, seeing "bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs," and as he visits an African-American church, experiencing a Christian service. Updike's innate understanding of religion, particularly as it figures in both personal and national yearning, deepens this novel, which finally reads like a blend: part religious exploration, part terrorist thriller, part cultural critique.
Set in a rundown New Jersey town, "Terrorist" tells the story of Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, a pious, idealistic high school senior of mixed descent (Irish-American mother, absent Egyptian father). Raised by his mother, Teresa, a nurse's aide and artist, Ahmad has fallen under the strict tutelage of Shaikh Rashid, an imam at a small storefront mosque who posits America as a nation of unbelievers who must be destroyed. Like his teacher, Ahmad rejects American sexuality and materialism. "Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair." Yet unlike his teacher, Ahmad is kind, thoughtful and curious about the unbelievers.
Part of the allure of Updike's novel is his ability to cast his potential terrorist so sympathetically. Ahmad, who wears clean white shirts and "speaks with a pained stateliness," may be Updike's most innocent creation to date: a morally good, responsible young man who simply desires something different from the steady American diet of consumerism and selfishness. Islam provides an alternative. In its teachings Ahmad finds "respect, and a challenge that asks something of [him]. It asks austerity. It asks restraint. All America wants of its citizens ... is for us to buy -- to spend money for foolish luxuries and thus to propel the economy forward." Updike succeeds in making this particular Islamic fundamentalist the good guy and American culture as -- well, if not the enemy then certainly a problem.
Spanning several months, "Terrorist" hinges upon Ahmad's high school graduation. Although learned and serious, the young Muslim rejects college (too godless and corrupt). His 63-year-old guidance counselor, Jack Levy, takes an interest in Ahmad as well as Ahmad's young mother, beginning an affair that reinvigorates the aging Jewish counselor.
Despite Jack's best efforts to have him continue his education, Ahmad begins driving trucks for Excellency Home Furnishings, a Lebanese-run family business, where he becomes a pawn for others in a larger battle between East and West, Muslim and Christian. Thus the novel moves inexorably toward a gripping climax: An Oklahoma City-like terrorist truck explosion targeting the Lincoln Tunnel.
While Updike's novel becomes increasingly compelling as the terrorist plot unfolds, it is not without problems. The plot at times feels heavy-handed and rife with coincidence. For instance, Jack's sister-in-law, Hermione, just happens to be the assistant to the Secretary of Homeland Security, which proves crucial and convenient late in the novel. In addition, Joryleen Grant, an African-American teen and Ahmad's only friend, happens to be the prostitute that a colleague unwittingly hires to take Ahmad's virginity. There are also passages and bits of dialogue, as Updike tries to access the thoughts and speech of young blacks and Muslims, that do not quite ring true.
Yet there is also much to admire, beginning with the eloquence and humor that are standard Updike fare. One would be hard pressed to find in all of American literature as many beautiful sentences and stunning metaphors as appear in Updike's writings. One also finds in "Terrorist" perceptive cultural commentary on such matters as television commercials and soap operas. "To a degree not true of evening programs ... the daytime soap operas take place against a background of thick, teeming silence, which all the erotic declarations, tense confessions, false assurances, and seething animosities cannot blot out."
Most significantly, the novel explores American spirituality. Updike's cast of Catholics, Jews, Lutherans and born-again Christians is godless, sluggish, fat and unfulfilled. In effect, Ahmad is surrounded by unbelievers. Jack remarks how after 36 years of marriage, he and his wife Beth, a Lutheran by birth, have had "their different faiths and ethnicities ... ground down to a lackluster sameness." Until he meets Ahmad and Teresa, Jack possesses little more than "an awareness, deepening each day, that all that is left on earth for his body to do is to prepare for death." Within such an environment, Ahmad's spiritual idealism, his desire for something more seems admirable, even if his willingness to become a pawn for the anger and violence of others is not.
Ahmad has something in common with Updike's most famous creation, Rabbit Angstrom: Both are young men who, finding their lives to be second rate and unfulfilling, seek transcendence. Whereas Rabbit was lifted by basketball and sex, Ahmad looks to more spiritual objectives.
A novelist, ultimately, is superfluous if he cannot tell us something about our current and changing world, and in "Terrorist" Updike does just that. Stretching beyond the realm of middle-class domesticity that he has depicted so masterfully, Updike writes engagingly about a post-9/11 world that is struggling with godlessness, decay, consumerism and the impulse toward spiritual yearning.