Updike Does Islam, Colonizes New Jersey

A delicious tension animates the best passages of Terrorist, a tug of war between the severe faith of a devout Muslim teenager, who sees everything in black-and-white dichotomies (straight/crooked, clean/unclean, faithful/infidel), and the lush, various, subtly shaded prose of John Updike, who can’t resist a gorgeous sentence. The greedy eye of the novelist grabs at the fabric of daily life in New Prospect, N.J., circa 2004; he wants it to shimmer for his readers. For the Muslim boy, the senses are a snare; he confesses to his imam that “the entire world … is such a distraction.”

The boy is called Ahmad, and the fervor of his faith is a plausible reaction against his own mixed parentage: His father, who walked out when Ahmad was 3, is Egyptian; his mother, a freckle-faced Irish-American, flaunts a bohemian streak. From age 11, Ahmad has embraced Islam, visiting a humble, makeshift mosque twice a week to study the Qur’an with a Yemeni imam, Shaikh Rashid. Ahmad’s faith is “chosen rather than merely inherited”; his God is “the concrete living God who stands beside [him] as close as the sunshine warming the skin of his neck.” (Allah told the Prophet, “We created man … and We are closer to him than his neck-vein.”) Ahmad has always had “the sense … of God being closer to him than a brother, of himself as a double being half unfolded, like a book with its two sets of pages bound together, odd and even, read and unread.”

Jack Levy, a 63-year-old high-school guidance counselor and a lapsed Jew, depressed and lacking all conviction (“was there any right path?” he wonders), is the counterpoint to young Ahmad’s passionate intensity. Jack, who thinks Ahmad should go to college instead of learning to drive a truck, is a character straight out of Roth or Bellow—“this lugubrious, boringly well-intentioned, stale-smelling man” is how Ahmad’s mother thinks of him. Peculiarly, he’s less convincing than Ahmad: The aging Jew is an impersonation (Bech reduced to a schlub); the fastidious young Muslim, with his crisp white shirt and black stovepipe jeans, is someone Mr. Updike had to invent from scratch, a vigorous, whole-hearted creative effort.

At the invitation of a classmate who sings in the choir, Ahmad attends a Sunday-morning service at a New Prospect church with a predominantly African-American congregation. Shown to a pew, he’s right away disoriented: “Accustomed to worshippers squatting and kneeling on a floor, emphasizing God’s height above them, Ahmad feels, even seated, dizzily, blasphemously tall. The Christian attitude of lazily sitting erect as at an entertainment suggests that God is an entertainer who, when He ceases to entertain, can be removed from the stage, and another act brought on.” And it is, indeed, a terrific show—a slam-bam sermon followed by the choir’s gospel extravaganza. Brilliantly executed, the 15-page scene spotlights both Ahmad’s effectiveness as a character and Mr. Updike’s well-established talent for dramatizing the mysteries of faith—having brushed up his Islam, he’s now effortlessly adept at yet another branch of comparative religious studies.

THOUGH NATIVE-BORN, AHMAD IS no patriot. Mr. Updike emphasizes the teenager’s disdain for the “American reality all around, a sprawling ferment for which he feels the mild pity owed a failed experiment.” This is how he sees the view from the New Jersey Turnpike: “Gulls, at first a few in his vision through the windshield, then dozens coming into focus, and the dozens becoming hundreds, wheel above a waste site. Beyond their greedy gathering of wings, beyond the sullen Hudson, stands the stone-colored silhouette, notched like an immense key, of the great city, Satan’s heart.”

To Ahmad’s contempt add Jack Levy’s bitter gloom, the sardonic deprecations of Shaikh Rashid and the ranting of Ahmad’s employer, a Lebanese-American called Charlie Chehab who hires him to drive around New Jersey delivering furniture, and you get a wide array of satirical opportunities. Mr. Updike seizes them with gusto: They’re his chance to show us the kind of socio-economic snapshot he perfected in the Rabbit tetralogy—but from unfamiliar perspectives.

Here’s Ahmad scoping out the geriatric scene at the Jersey shore: “The guts of the men sag hugely and the monstrous buttocks of the women seesaw painfully as they tread the boardwalk in swollen running shoes. A few steps from death, these American elders defy decorum and dress as toddlers.” The sarcasm loaded on the word “elders” is a neat bit of characterization (an elder is exactly what the fatherless Ahmad needs) and a painful indictment of 21st-century America.

The satire is ample in scope and effectively targeted—it even prompts a reaction (surely Mr. Updike’s canny intention), a surge of affection for the “American reality” and the barbaric yawp of its motley population.

And, of course, as Terrorist’s title bluntly promises, Ahmad—prompted by Shaikh Rashid and Charlie Chehab—volunteers to become a suicide bomber: “I will die,” he says, “if it is the will of God.” He enlists in a rush-hour plot callously calculated to kill many thousands.

Everything about the terrorist plot (and the plot of the novel, with its unlikely coincidences and weak motivations) is a disappointment. The least-convincing parts are the several cameo appearances by the Secretary of Homeland Security, who just happens to be the boss of Jack Levy’s sister-in-law: “The Secretary muses aloud, ‘Those people out there … Why do they want to do these horrible things? Why do they hate us? What’s to hate?’” Not even a Bush appointee could be so lame.

Mr. Updike answers the Secretary’s question by getting us into Ahmad’s head, which is a good thing—it’s what we desperately need. We need to know about Ahmad’s contempt, his pity (and lack thereof), his alienation, his proud zeal—all the sources of his suicidal resolve.

What we don’t need is the mechanics of his terrorist mission and the shadowy conspiracy that supports it; or the fumbling counter-conspiracy aimed at thwarting it; or the unsteady ratcheting of suspense. Cloak-and-dagger is not Mr. Updike’s strength. It’s as if, after battering us with anti-American tirades, he suddenly thought he’d better whip up some thrills. They’re about as effective as the Department of Homeland Security raising the “terror-threat level” from yellow to orange.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer. Updike Does Islam,  Colonizes New Jersey