Terrorist by John Updike
Religion, John Updike recently told Fritz Lanham of The Houston Chronicle, “can be a very dangerous thing. On the other hand to have no faith is to live in an almost intolerably bleak universe.”
The balance between faithlessness and fanatical spiritual certainty is the essence of Updike’s new novel, Terrorist, a searing hybrid of character study and thriller that’s more successful as the former than as the latter.
The poster boy of small-town, WASP existentialism has long been more eclectic and worldly than his thumbnail reputation would suggest. The Coup (1979) features the ex-dictator of a fictional African state, and in 1994 Updike retold Tristan and Isolde in the contemporary chaos of Brazil. In the Bech novels, dating from 1970, he establishes a literary alter-ego who is everything Updike is not, including Jewish. And in 2000, he wrote a prequel to Hamlet.
So let’s be surprised, but not too surprised, that Updike has brought to vivid life the most poetically bittersweet, baffled, and passively maddening 18-year-old terrorist you’d ever hope not to meet. Ahmad (Ashmawy) Mulloy is the son of a would-be bohemian Irish-American mother, Terry, and an Egyptian father who ran out on them when the boy was three. Flitting in and out of Ahmad’s life is his concerned, gloomy high school guidance counselor, Jack Levy.
These two seem to triangulate Updike’s own preoccupations with faith, rationality, civic-mindedness, and even aesthetics -- Ahmad from an immature but sensitive, puritanical standpoint, and Jack from a disillusioned, early geriatric one. They enable Updike to critique, with his quietly virtuosic naturalism, the tackiness and primitive vitality of contemporary urban northeastern America, reified in the once grand, now disintegrating northern New Jersey industrial town of New Prospect.
For years, Ahmad has been under the influence of a Yemeni imam, who teaches out of a converted ballroom dancing studio. The teachings sink in and flow through Ahmad, to whom God has become closer “than the vein in his neck.”
As Ahmad’s high school years come to an end, Jack is belatedly concerned that the smart, studious, self-disciplined boy aspires only to getting a license to drive trucks. Jack visits Ahmad’s apartment to try to encourage him to apply to college and meets Terry, a nurse’s aide who paints big abstract canvases in her free time.
Through the imam, Ahmad gets a job driving a delivery truck for a markdown furniture store. As Ahmad grows into the young manhood of working life, 63-year-old Jack -- revolted by his obese, soap opera- and cookie-obsessed librarian wife, Beth -- revisits his younger manhood in a meandering affair with Terry. He, the lapsed Jew, and she, the lapsed Catholic, problematically attempt to revive their lapsed passion and purpose in life.
Charlie Chehab, the affable son of the Lebanese furniture store owner, pals around with Ahmad on deliveries, discoursing on the American Revolution as jihad and on the seductive evils of television advertising. Eventually, of course, with the aid of the enigmatic imam, Charlie also pulls Ahmad into a hideous plot.
This thriller framework -- which also involves Jack’s sister-in-law, the assistant to a somewhat cartoonishly sketched secretary of homeland security -- is the book’s weak link. It’s as though the plot turns were the rote homework Updike forced himself through in order to get to the descriptive passages he thrives on. No one will ever mistake him for le Carre.
But if the thriller elements are a tad tossed off, the dual portraits of Ahmad and Jack more than make up for that. For all their obvious differences, the two have a lot in common. They share a weary, anti-materialistic resignation with this world and visions of possible better ones. They also both ambivalently long for sex outside of marriage. Jack needs Terry -- to remind him of a more robust and vital past, when he had a surer familial and carnal footing. Ordinarily these days he wakes hours before dawn “with the taste of dread in his mouth... Fear slams shut the door back into sleep, an awareness, deepening each day, that all that is left on earth for his body to do is to prepare for death.” But now, toward Ahmad, he rediscovers his fatherly tenderness; and toward Terry, his lover’s élan.
For his part, Ahmad eyes his recent African-American classmate Joryleen, who embodies everything dirty that the virginal man-child most wants and fears. Ahmad’s journey to her church to hear her sing in the gospel choir is a superb set piece, the kind of scene Tom Wolfe, the un-Updike, would carry off with expert exclamatory dash, but which is handled here with an equally effective evocative and heartfelt restraint.
Ahmad’s haughty, semi-alien viewpoint also allows Updike to bring his wonderfully acerbic eye to scenes like this description of visitors to a Jersey beach town.
Children among them wear towering hats of plastic foam, and those who might be their grandparents, having forsaken all thought of dignity, make themselves ridiculous in clinging outfits of many colors and patterns. Sunburned and overfed, some sport in complacent self-mockery the same foam carnival hats as their grandchildren wear, tall and striped ones as in the books by Dr. Seuss or headgear shaped like open-mouthed sharks or lobsters extending a giant red mitt of a claw. Devils. The guts of the men sag hugely and the monstrous buttocks of the women seesaw painfully as they tread the boardwalk in swollen sneakers. A few steps from death, these American elders defy decorum and dress as toddlers.
Ahmad’s thoughts turn often to the world beyond, lovingly described in extended passages from the Koran. But given that he’s been stuck on this earth, he finds paradoxical comfort and a sense of purpose and control in the idea and the actuality of a truck cab. “The transportation world is full of dangers that Ahmad has never before contemplated. It excites him, however, to see himself -- like the pilot of a 727 or the captain of a supertanker or the tiny brain of a brontosaurus -- steering a great vehicle through the maze of dire possibilities to safety. He is pleased to find in the trucking regulations a concern with purity almost religious in quality.” But will Ahmad’s childish glee in mechanical power become the tyrant’s, the protector’s, or some twisted composite of the two?
The novel’s title is literal. But the book’s aftertaste is the profound sense that we all terrorize each other in strange, quotidian ways. We do so with our cynicism, infidelity, and bitterness, with our bullying, the betrayal of our ideals, with our weakness and disgusting habits, our greed and licentiousness. We do so, in short, by living.
In Ahmad’s sad and warped sensitivity, his quiet, tidy confidence, Updike confronts us with judgment day. Ahmad and his disgust with who we are seeps into our consciences like moisture into wall cracks. Who doesn’t feel, now and then, that contemporary society somehow deserves punishment for its sins and failures?
For most of us, though, maturity and sanity bring the realization that such punishment needn’t come in the form of a truckload of explosive fertilizer. Punishment, ubiquitous and subtle and merciless, comes in the degradations of life itself -- aging, loneliness, illness, mourning, regret. And faith feeds on the joys wrapped baroquely and frailly around those degradations. In this timely tale, that faith is as murky as a young man’s unpromising tomorrow, as transient as an ambivalent mistress’s embrace, and as warm and close as the vein in your neck.
Terrorist by John Updike
Alexander C. Kafka is a senior editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education and a freelance writer on books and the arts who has contributed to The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The American Prospect, The Weekly Standard, and many other publications.