- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 3, 2006

Terrorist

By John Updike

Knopf, $24.95, 320 pages

Reviewed by Christian Toto

In four acclaimed novels, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize, John Updike assessed the state of our nation through the eyes of a flawed but fascinating ex-jock named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom.

Alas, Rabbit is no more, but Mr. Updike once again takes the nation’s pulse in “Terrorist,” his latest novel. Part character study, part Jihad 101, “Terrorist” tackles the biggest subject of our age yet manages to feel insubstantial all the same.

Just don’t confuse insubstantial with uninteresting. “Terrorist” is a page-turner, a treatise on unqualified hatred embodied by a lanky high school student named Ahmad Mulloy Ashmay.

Mr. Updike doesn’t lionize young Ahmad, whose alienation from western ways leads him to terrorism. Yet the author seems nearly as displeased with our culture as his protagonist is. Mr. Updike spends much of the book’s 300-plus pages probing every societal flaw, from racial acrimony to our ever-broadening waistlines (epitomized in the lazy, pathetic wife of a key character).

Young Ahmad is in his final year at a high school in New Prospect, N.J., a blue-collar town with an ethnic mix that proves incendiary. While other students are prepping for college, Ahmad spends his days reinforcing his hatred of western culture with Shaikh Rashid, the local imam who shares Ahmad’s disgust.

Graduation looms, but Ahmad isn’t interested in a brighter future. He plans to drive a truck, which his guidance counselor sees as a waste of brains and talent. Said counselor, Jack Levy, could use a little pep talk himself. He’s succumbed to a life of low expectations, epitomized by his marriage to his corpulent wife, Beth. Even his students don’t take his advice seriously, particularly Ahmad.

At least Ahmad’s mother, Teresa Mulloy, pays Jack some attention. Their mid-novel romance feels like the author’s obligatory sexual detour, the only time “Terrorist” teeters on the edge of becoming an Updike parody.

Ahmad graduates and finds work hauling furniture for a Muslim-owned firm, a job which dovetails toward a terrorist plot which consumes the book’s final pages.

The prose in “Terrorist” is pure Updike — from the exquisitely detailed descriptive passages to his eerie ability to capture a mood or moment in just a few phrases. Some sentences stop us in our tracks with their poignancy. He describes the smoky sky on September 11 as “that clear day’s only cloud.” His eye for exact detail appears unaffected by age or literary exhaustion.

Yet the subject matter strays far afield from his usual metier — the aging, upper middle class sorts for whom infidelity and malaise are the norm.

Jack and his wife, Beth, most closely resemble Mr. Updike’s characters from his previous novels, but their bond isn’t given nearly enough space to develop. They do, though, represent America at its worst. Jack worries about every injustice large or small but has lost interest in addressing them. Beth spends her spare time anchored in her recliner, channel surfing her way into her golden years.

Mr. Updike is equally unkind to the New Jersey school system, which is filled with insolent teens who are simultaneously lazy and angry.

Some minor characters are defined by their race or class, but others simply defy belief. Joryleen, a fellow high school student who epitomizes the whorish look Ahmad reviles, captivates him in the opening pages. Later, Mr. Updike manipulates her character in an unbelievable way he never would have attempted in his prime.

At least Joryleen begins as a three-dimensional construct. Mr. Updike saves his greatest disdain for the Homeland Security chief and his spinster assistant, who happens to be Beth’s sister. We’re introduced to the chief as he blithely changes the terror warning system, caring more about politics than the public good. He’s a large, densely made figure whose assistant, a one-woman Greek chorus of approval, can’t help but admire.

Mr. Updike’s chief starts as a cartoon character but manages to become even less real as the story marches forward. The novel might have proved more effective if the military angle were dropped entirely.

Mr. Updike is far more adept at capturing Islamic radicalism’s allure. Ahmad, abandoned by his father and, to a lesser extent, his hippie mother, finds in Islam a path toward both acceptance and superiority. Mr. Updike expertly portrays this religious subculture, from its miserly approach to excess to its unbending rules. We may be horrified by Ahmad’s moral code, but a nagging admiration for his fealty and inner strength can’t help but rise to the surface.

By focusing on an unrepentant radical, Mr. Updike has left himself little room for character development. We wait for some breakthrough between Ahmad and his mother, but given their respective weaknesses, nothing of the kind is forthcoming.

As a thriller, “Terrorist” gets most of the beats just right, even if we must sift through a few implausibilities along the way. The final moments send readers on a white-knuckle ride that lives up to the promise of the genre.

Early in “Terrorist,” an uneasy sense emerges that the author’s sympathies will be tied up in Ahmad. It’s his inner thoughts which are the most complex of any of the novel’s characters, and in an odd way the most innocent. When Mr. Updike trots out our nation’s excesses, it’s sometimes hard not to identify with Ahmad’s rage.

Perhaps that’s the author’s way of illustrating that, even at its worst, our nation doesn’t deserve to be obliterated by a fanatical enemy.

It’s a shame ol’ Rabbit isn’t around to speak out against a world in the grip of terror. Instead, we’re left with an author seemingly too bitter about the whole sorry state of affairs to be our guide.

Christian Toto is a features reporter for The Washington Times.


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