John Updike


"Terrorist"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JAN 10, 2007)

"My grandfather thought capitalism was doomed, destined to get more and more oppressive until the proletariat stormed the barricades and set up the workers’ paradise. But that didn’t happen; the capitalists were too clever or the proletariat too dumb. To be on the safe side, they changed the label ‘capitalism’ to read ‘free enterprise,’ but it was still too much dog-eat-dog. Too many losers and the winners winning too big.

We should all go back to being hunter-gatherers, with a hundred percent employment rate, and a healthy amount of starvation."

The world has changed since 9/11, and it shows in John Updike’s latest novel, Terrorist--a complete change of pace from Updike’s usual fare. In this novel, Updike’s protagonist is an 18-year-old boy, named Ahmad, the product of an unfortunate union between an Irish American woman and an Egyptian father. When the novel begins, Ahmad is an aloof outcast in his Prospect, New Jersey high school. He has no friends--although a young black classmate named Joryleen Grant does try to connect with Ahmad on some level.

His hopeless but well-meaning and overwhelmed mother—nurse’s aide Teresa Mulloy, raises Ahmad in poverty. Over the years, she’s brought home a long line of boyfriends—none of them stick around. When Ahmad turns to Islam, and begins to rely exclusively on the advice of his imam, Shaikh Rashid, Teresa isn’t alarmed. In her mind, if a “boy needs a father…he’ll invent one.” Neither is Teresa particularly concerned when Ahmad is persuaded by his imam to stop taking the college track classes and to study, instead, for a commercial driver’s license in order to drive trucks for a living.

In high school, Ahmad has quietly dropped through the cracks, but then his counselor, Jack Levy becomes interested in the boy, and after visiting Ahmad’s home, Levy becomes involved with the family. Some uncanny parallels exist between Levy and Ahmad. They are both isolated from mainstream society, and they both see capitalism as a social evil. But whereas Ahmad despises Americans for their consumerism and considers himself morally superior, Levy’s humanitarian approach sees the trappings of modern culture as devices to lock deluded Americans in debt. To Levy, “America is paved solid with fat and tar, a coast-to-coast tarbaby where we’re all stuck.” Similarly, Ahmad considers Americans “slaves to drugs, slaves to fads, slaves to television, slaves to sports heroes that don’t know they exist, slaves to the unholy meaningless opinions of others.”

Updike’s novel is at its strongest when describing Ahmad’s alienation from society. Ahmad describes a childhood of longing—longing for things that his single parent mother couldn’t afford. Devotion to Islam has simply removed all of that hopelessness of desiring things he’ll never possess. He no longer craves the material goods that he cannot afford, and “Islam rendered him immune” from the consumer culture that surrounds him, and “the tempting counterfeit lavishness of man-made plenty.” Ahmad and his acquaintances sees Americans as “machines for consuming” pushed by their materialistic culture to constantly consume more than they can afford.

There are four female characters in the novel: Teresa Mulloy, Joryleen, Jack’s wife, Beth, and her sister Hermione. All of the female portraits in the novel are extremely unflattering—ok, big deal, so there are four obnoxious females—but there are several pages spent describing Beth’s blubber, the odors her expanse of flesh generates, and pages spent on her inability to rise from her recliner: “A scent rises to her nostrils from the deep creases between the rolls of fat, where dark pellets of sweat accumulate; in the bathtub her flesh floats around her like a set of giant bubbles, semi-liquid in their sway and sluggish buoyancy.” With descriptions like these, it’s no wonder the male characters within these pages feel alienated from the females in their lives. It’s a little troublesome that all the females are so unpleasant, and there seems to be a strain of misogyny afoot in these portraits.

Ahmad’s patterns of speech are often quite unrealistic. He is—after all—an American, but instead his English is a little too perfect and correct, and some of the thoughts the author ascribes to Ahmad seem just a little too complex and just too formulaic. In one passage, Ahmad describes his parentage to Levy: “My father well knew that marrying an American citizen, however trashy and immoral she was would gain him American citizenship, and so it did, but not American know-how, nor the network of acquaintance that leads to American prosperity. Having despaired of ever earning more than a menial living by the time I was three, he decamped.” Furthermore, some of the rather-too-pat discussions between characters take on the aspect of opportunities to present opposing viewpoints—rather than real conversations. The novel contains quite dense references to religion—which can be distracting and annoying at times.

Updike’s vision of America is not flattering—this is an America in which Homeland Security fears terrorist plots that include “Osama Bin Laden” beamed in on every channel. Ahmad, a so-called “homegrown terrorist” is the product of poverty, and knowing that he cannot succeed in this greatest of materialistic worlds simply pushes him into alienation and towards fundamental Islam. All in all, Terrorist is a fair attempt at a novel outside of author Updike’s usual fare. Did it succeed?—Yes, in some spots but not in others.
  • Amazon readers' rating: from 157 reviews


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About the Author:

John UpdikeJohn Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania, as an only child. His father taught algebra in a local high school, and his mother wrote short stories and novels. After getting straight A's in high school, he went to Harvard University on a full scholarship, studying English and graduating summa cum laude in 1954. After graduation, he spent a year in England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford.  From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker, to which he has contributed poems, fiction, essays, and book reviews. 

He is the author of over fifty books, including collections of short stories, poems and criticism. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, the Howells Medal and the Campion Medal. He essentially published a book or so a year.

In 1959 Updike published both his first book of short fiction, The Same Door, and his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair. That year he also moved from New York City to the coastal town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, where he lived most of the time since.

Updike won the National Book Award in 1963 for his novel The Centaur. He gained popular success with Couples, published in 1968, a tale of adultery among middle-class couples in a small New England town. He was most famous for his four "Rabbit" novels, which chronicled the adventures of one Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom; the last two novels Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, each won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

He was twice married and the father of four children.

John Updike died at the age of 76 on January 27, 2009 of lung cancer at a hospice near his home in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts.

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