The thought of a John Updike novel pondering America’s post-9/11 angst may lead to a belief that the world is beginning to see the 9/11 literary canon so many people seem to desire. While post-9/11 America sets the stage for Updike’s 22nd novel, Terrorist, let’s hope it is a step along the way to that canon and not a cornerstone.
Terrorist is the story of Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, an 18-year-old graduating senior from a decaying high school in the decaying factory town of New Prospect, N.J. Although born and raised in the U.S., Ahmad is far different than his classmates. Ahmad is the son of a woman of Irish-American heritage (hence Mulloy) and an Egyptian father (hence Ashmawy) who abandoned the family when Ahmad was three. Beginning at age 11, Ahmad began studying Islam on his own initiative, taking twice weekly lessons from the local imam. He is now a devout Muslim, trying to stay on “the Straight Path.” He wears black stovepipe jeans and laundered white shirts to school every day. Although he runs track, he has no friends, disdains the normal accoutrements of teenage life and is both intrigued and repulsed by his sexy black classmate, Joryleen Grant. Generally, Ahmad views non-Muslim Americans as little more than amoral and reprehensible “devils” who “seek to take away my God.”
Ahmad is enthralled by Islam and the study of the Koran in Arabic. Although intelligent and talented, at his imam’s suggestion Ahmad opts for the vocational track in high school with the goal of becoming a truck driver. College would expose him to “corrupting influences — bad philosophy and bad literature.”
In steps Jack Levy, a 63-year-old depressive guidance counselor at Ahmad’s high school who also happens to be a nonpracticing Jew. Levy sees potential in Ahmad and breaks out of his generally stuporous approach to his job and life to nudge Ahmad toward college. Levy has an affair with Ahmad’s mother, Teresa, who fancies herself a painter but supports herself and Ahmad by working as a nurse’s aide. After graduation, Ahmad ends up working as a delivery driver for a furniture store owned by a Lebanese family, a job arranged by the imam. This job ultimately leads to Ahmad’s enrollment in a terrorist plot. To make sure all the bases are covered, Jack Levy’s sister-in-law just happens to be the personal assistant to the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
This tale combines the best and the worst of Updike. Updike always strives for extraordinary description and attention to detail. At the same time, though, his exposition can run to extremes. For example, the third chapter opens with, “The phone rings.” It is another eight pages (consisting of roughly eight lengthy paragraphs) before Levy’s wife, alone in the house, actually picks up the phone. Likewise, at times the attention to detail oozes foreshadowing. For example, as Ahmad studies for his commercial driver’s license, we learn a great deal about the dangers of transporting hazardous materials. You can see the sexual relationship between Jack Levy and Teresa Mulloy coming just a couple pages into their first meeting. That development, of course, allows Updike to include his seemingly obligatory sex scenes, regardless of the extent to which they further the plot.
Yet most damning is the lack of believability. Despite Updike’s attention to detail, Ahmad never really comes off as real. Although he is a somewhat likeable character, he does not speak or act like a teenager born and raised in New Jersey. Instead, he comes off as caricature of a jihadist plunked down in a modern American urban area, spouting phrases like “Western culture is Godless,” “the American way is the way of infidels,” and movies are “sinful” and “foretastes of hell.” Yet other than a general feeling of an impressionable youth being affected by an imam, we get virtually no insight into or understanding of how or why a teenager living with an Irish-American mother became so enthralled with Islam that God is now, as Ahmad puts it, “closer than the vein in my neck.”
The other characters come off no better. Call central casting for a freckled, light-skinned Irish-American woman with green eyes and red hair and you’ve got Teresa Mulloy. Likewise, Levy is typecast enough that he would fit right in almost any television sitcom about a large high school. Virtually every Muslim in the story is involved in the terror plot. The only two Afro-American characters are Joryleen and her boyfriend Tylenol, so named because his mother “saw the name in a television commercial for painkiller and liked the sound of it.” And what careers do they pursue after graduation? Prostitute and pimp.
If these almost racially insensitive categorizations weren’t enough, there are machinations aplenty to tie the last sentence of the book to one of the first. The plot resolution boggles the mind. It consists of a far-fetched chain of events, each of which causes the reader to raise an eyebrow even further at the extent of the implausibility.
Updike’s concept of exploring post-8/11 America via a “homegrown” American terrorist is worthwhile. Its execution, however, causes this rather slow-paced and deliberate thriller to fail. Regardless of how much the world of letters seems to burn for that post-9/11 canon, Terrorist is further evidence that any such canon currently is and remains extremely weak.
History is a machine perpetually grinding mankind to dust.
John Updike, Terrorist