by John Updike

Published by Knopf

320 pages, 2006

Buy it online




Terror From Within

Reviewed by Summer Block


In Terrorist, John Updike takes on the challenge of imagining this century's greatest villain from within, but this largely failed attempt tests the limits of Updike's sympathies.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy is the titular terrorist, the son of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian exchange student who abandoned his family when Ahmad was three, leaving the boy with a void that he tries to fill with a fervent devotion to Allah. Though Ahmad is a promising student, his imam encourages him to work for a Lebanese family furniture store, where for the first time his spiritual commitment to Islam is wedded to violent political action.

There is much to praise in Updike's most ambitious novel, chiefly the lavish, seductive detail for which he has been justly and amply awarded. Yet the lyrical flights of Updike's narration are thwarted at every turn by his stilted, expository dialogue and flat, obvious characters, as earnest and plodding as a high school play. There is a cliché that a liberal only loves humanity en masse. Updike takes it a step further -- it is as if he can only see humanity en masse. Like a man looking into the wrong end of a telescope, the more he tries to hone in on his characters, the farther away they seem.

Though far from the disaster of Tom Wolfe's recent I Am Charlotte Simmons, now the very symbol of misguided geriatric prurience, Updike's rhapsodies on "young flesh" and "ripened manhood" are humorous at best. It is hardly necessary to mention that Updike's understanding of adolescents above the belt is hardly more keen. Ahmad, in particular, is full of stiff declarations like, "I do not find that television encourages clean thoughts."

Strangely, this American-born young man sounds like English is his second language; he describes the location of his mosque as, "on a street of stores, above a beauty shop and a place where they give you cash." Meanwhile, Ahmad's interior monologues are characterized by a persistent narrative slip between Ahmad's voice and Updike's, making Ahmad perhaps the world's smartest, weariest 18 year old.

Meanwhile, America's dizzying diversity has Updike wearing out his thesaurus finding new synonyms for "brown": "darker than caramel but paler than chocolate;" "dun, low-luster shade lighter than beige;" "walnut-stained;" "dusky;" even the occasional "waxy white."

The only character that comes close to fully human is Jack Levy, nursing "his dogged Jewish virtue, the oldest lost cause still active in the Western world." No wonder, then, that Levy is endowed with sympathy and insight, carrying a high school guidance counselor's mixed burden of optimism and regret. Watching Ahmad's class graduate, "Jack Levy begins to choke up. The docility of human beings, their basic willingness to please ... Levy with a furtive knuckle attacks the incipient tears tickling both sides of his nose."

But if this is what human sympathy means, it isn't worth very much -- Levy may weep for his starry-eyed students, but he can't find his lonely wife in her protective layers of body fat, and he'd rather bed Ahmad's mother than try. Like Updike, he needs to turn his telescope around.

Yet Updike's descriptions of a dying New Jersey city are absolutely perfect, an elegy to trolley-car tracks, movie marquees and the "rounded arches and rococo ironwork" of a florid City Hall façade, relics from times envisioned as more genteel and public-minded, now subsumed in public housing and suburban sprawl; and the long slide of a formerly thriving mill town into sagging decrepitude. It feels as if someone populated a lush, Baroque background with a series of gaunt, Gothic allegorical figures delivering set pieces on religion and politics.

Yet there are things Updike gets right about Ahmad, too -- the teenager's stubborn stridency, the black and white rhetoric that appeals to youthful confusion, Ahmad's uneasy position amid Muslim immigrants, whose secular chores are as alien to him as the craven comforts of the infidels and whose everyday Islamic rituals tame the exoticism that Ahmad craves in his own faith. Ahmad is aimless, easily led and given to self-dramatization: the melodramatic finality of martyrdom is an easier road to imagine than the long rebuke of adult life.

And of course, there is the affair between Jack and Ahmad's mother, Teresa, where Updike is on his surest ground. Few authors are as perceptive in cataloguing the raw, vulgar need that underpins these sordid sexual encounters, so unlike the romantic illusions that sustain them.

Some of Terrorist's many negative reviews have dwelled on the seemingly impossible series of events that steer the plot: Jack's sister-in-law is an assistant to the Department of Homeland Security, who just happens to mention her suspicions about a New Jersey terrorist cell moments before Ahmad climbs into his bomb-laden truck, heading for the single entrance to his target tunnel -- an entrance Jack has ample time to reach in an attempt to stop Ahmad. (And in this fearful age, why does no one find it at all suspicious that a militant imam would encourage his impressionable young student to forego college in favor of learning to drive a truck?)

A slavish adherence to realism is too often a critic's crutch, turning close reading into a game of "spot the coincidence." Tragedies have always moved outside of reality's bland confusion, their characters impelled towards a fixed fate. The problem is, this mode of narrative intervention implies a fully realized character to start with. If Ahmad had a character at all, his destiny would seem more fated and less phony.

In a conversation with Jolene, Ahmad's high school friend and overachiever, improbably turned part-time prostitute, he muses on his God: "In the Qur'an, He is called the Loving, the Self-Subsistent. I used to think of the love; now I'm struck by the self-subsistence, in all that emptiness. Nobody thinks of God -- if He suffers or not, if He likes being what He is." Catching himself sliding towards blasphemy, he quickly checks this train of thought, but the question hangs in the air: how to love God humbly, with a love that is awestruck and never presumptuous, but still warm and alive, closer than a parent or lover. It's probably the most moving thing Ahmad will ever think, but he passively chooses another road instead, with little more agency than the bomb he carries. | August 2006


Summer Block is a regular contributor to several newspapers and journals, including The San Francisco Chronicle and Rain Taxi. Her work can be found at summerblock.com.