John Updike's accidental terrorist

Review Novel



John Updike

Alfred A. Knopf / 310 pages / $25

The question consumes us, especially since Sept. 11:

Who are these terrorists eager to blow up thousands of strangers - and themselves? Who would embrace the unimaginable pain of that kind of death for even a few seconds, becoming merely a splash of blood, a few bits of bone, a sprinkling of ash?

In pained bewilderment, we imagine suicide bombers as nearly subhuman, seared by hate and incapable of empathy.

Those questions must have haunted the writer John Updike. Perhaps more than any other American writer, Updike savors the world revealed by our five senses. It is Updike who painstakingly re-creates the taste of a macadamia nut: the tang of salt on the upper layer of the tongue, its initial resistance to our bite. It is Updike who records the pleasing pungency of a pool of rainwater mixed with gasoline that has collected in a pothole.

In Terrorist, Updike delves into the formation of a homegrown terrorist, someone more like the young Britons who bombed the London Underground last year than the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 attacks. Eighteen-year-old Ahmad grows up in a seedy, dying New Jersey town reminiscent of the seedy, dying Pennsylvania towns that Updike has chronicled. Ahmad is the son of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father who abandoned the family when the boy was 3.

And, like many Updike characters, Ahmad has an avid appetite for the way things look and taste and sound and smell:

"All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos ask, What else is there to see? Boys strut and loaf along and look dead-eyed, indicating with their edgy killer gestures and careless scornful laughs that this world is all there is - a noisy varnished hall lined with metal lockers and having at its end a blank wall desecrated by graffiti and roller-painted over so often it feels to be coming closer by millimeters."

Updike's two other main characters, slack-bellied but resilient, will be familiar to the readers of his 21 other novels and 15 short story collections. They are Jack Levy, a sixtyish Jewish high school guidance counselor so assimilated that he has adopted a WASP-y version of his given name, Jacob; and Terry Mulloy, Ahmad's Bohemian mother, a nurse's aid who paints mediocre art.

Jack becomes interested in Ahmad when the high school senior with a formidable I.Q. leaves the college track for vocational education. His curiosity is piqued further when he begins an affair with the succulent Terry, 23 years his junior.

As for Ahmad, he drifts, almost unaware, into agreeing to become a martyr for Islam. He is influenced by his imam, or teacher of the Quran, and Charlie, a surrogate big brother at the furniture store where Ahmad works after graduating. On one level, Ahmad knows he's searching for a father figure, and he also knows he's being manipulated. But he cannot, or does not, resist.

It is, perhaps, a political statement to depict a terrorist-in-training as sympathetic, even likable. Updike accomplishes that by showing the readers Ahmad's confusion and vulnerability. Though Updike is savvy enough to make his point subtly, astute readers may conclude that the boy's extreme views stem partly from his emotional deprivation. The novelist calculates, correctly, that readers will make allowances for teens that we never would make for adults.

Updike gets many things about Ahmad right: the formality of the boy's voice; the way his contempt hides behind impeccable manners; the way that Ahmad, like many adolescents, clings to absolutes in a sloppy and uncertain world. In the boy's view, people are either virtuous or unclean, on the straight path or wallowing in cesspools.

The novelist also depicts Ahmad's grandiose ideas as mostly theoretical; though the young man claims to hate unbelievers as a group, and though he instantly sees through adult hypocrisies, he can't bring himself to despise individuals, with the exception of a schoolyard bully.

Unfortunately, Updike doesn't always lavish the same compassion and insight on his other characters. Some portrayals seem almost rushed.

For instance, it's hard to believe when a model student and singer in the church choir becomes a prostitute less than three months after graduating. Updike provides remarkably little explanation for so extreme a transformation, and what he does provide is unconvincing.

It's troubling that Updike doesn't bestow a full humanity on the women in his novels. His favorite female characters tend to share certain traits - they are pragmatic and sensual, women like Terry who, as Jack notes approvingly, have "hands that do things." When Updike likes a female character, he often makes her a nurse, or, in this case, a nurse's aide: professions that place a premium on practicality, nurturing, and comfort with the human body.

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