By John Updike
One can be pretty sure that when John Updike started writing Terrorist, his twenty-second novel, he thought he was writing a timely book. It is unlikely, however, that he had in mind just how timely it would be for Canadian readers. Given the events of the past few weeks, the story of an Arab-American teen who is recruited into a terrorist plot hits remarkably close to home.
Updike’s portrayal of the would-be terrorist, Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, is broadly sympathetic. In part this is because they share a conservative outlook on the decline of the West. Ahmad lives in the post-industrial New Jersey dump of New Prospect, a town that has seen better days. He lives in an America that is stuffed to bursting with garbage. New Prospect’s green spaces have been paved over to make more room for roads and parking, its houses compressed into “housing.” Fast food restaurants serve more food than anyone can eat, leading to an epidemic of obesity. Poor people are having too many kids. In America more has always been more, but now more just means more junk. And it’s starting to pile up:
As Ahmad walks along, swift and scissoring in black and white, yet with a native trace of the American lope, he sees shabbiness in the streets, the fast-food trash and broken plastic toys, the unpainted steps and porches still dark from the morning’s dampness, the windows cracked and not repaired. The curbs are lined with American cars from the last century, bigger than they ever needed to be and now falling apart, cracked taillights and no hubcaps and tires flat in the gutters. Women’s voices rise from back rooms in merciless complaint against children who were born uninvited and now collect, neglected, around the only friendly voices in their hearing, those from the television set.
Yes, even the family has broken down. And this most conservative of complaints is Ahmad’s undoing. Raised an only child by his single Irish-American mother after his Egyptian dad took off for parts unknown, Ahmad is in need of the “surrogate father” he finds in the dangerous imam Shaikh Rashid. Overwhelmed by American consumerism and materialism, he finds spiritual nourishment in the Qur’an.
Jack Levy, Ahmad’s high school guidance counselor, shares his disgust with the American scene. Jack, however, is closer to Updike’s own point of view in two important ways that distinguish him from Ahmad: He is not religious and he enjoys sex. A lapsed Jew married to a woman Updike crudely mocks at every opportunity for being a grotesque fatty, Jack loses no time falling into bed with Ahmad’s mother. This is the typical Updike attitude toward life, and we’re obviously supposed to see it as healthy. Ahmad, on the other hand, is a fiercely repressed virgin with a yearning for the paradise to come. He even likes the noisy action movies Jack despises, “marvelling at the expenditure of Hollywood ammunition and the beauty of its explosions.” You know this spells trouble.
The conflict presented is between two visions of human nature. On the one hand there is the kind of universal Americanism believed in by the Secretary of Homeland Security: “democracy and consumerism are fevers in the blood of Everyman, an outgrowth of each individual’s instinctive optimism and desire for freedom.” What makes the Secretary effective at his job? Concern for the public? Of course not. He is motivated by material self-interest. If there is a successful terrorist attack he won’t get to sit on any corporate boards, or collect huge speaker’s fees, or get a million-dollar advance on his memoirs.
Ahmad rejects all of this. Politicians all “want Americans to be selfish and materialistic, to play their part in consumerism. But the human spirit asks for self-denial. It longs to say ‘No’ to the physical world.” At the heart of the novel is this struggle between the feverish desire in the blood and the the spirit of denial, a conflict that is finally more intense and suggestive than anything in the simple yet suspenseful thriller plot Updike hangs it on.
Fans of Updike will respond to his drawing of the familiar (albeit degraded) world of the working middle class, and the descriptive prose that is as comfortable as pulling on an old sweater. Some of the voices are a stretch for Updike’s ear, and he also has a tendency this time out to have his characters break into potted political speeches, but these are the only false notes. In every other way this is an observant and entertaining transformation into fiction of the spirit of the age and the news of the day.
Review first published June 17, 2006.