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Terrorist: A Novelby John Updike
"Terrorist is a wonderfully sharp work. Part extreme coming-of-age story, part thriller, it is carefully plotted, articulate, and fortified with good writing. But it also has an old-fashioned willingness to make the great problems of the day personal, human-scale, and funny, and it is for this reason that Terrorist is a book to admire and be entertained by at once." Anna Godbersen, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
"John Updike should have run a thousand miles away from this subject — at least as soon as he saw the results on the page....Despite all the Koranic homework, there is a sense that what is alien in Islam to a Westerner remains alien to John Updike. What he has discovered, yet again, is merely the generalized fluid of God-plus-sex that has run throughout all his novels." James Wood, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
Synopses & Reviews
The ever-surprising John Updikes twenty-second novel is a brilliant contemporary fiction that will surely be counted as one of his most powerful. It tells of eighteen-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy and his devotion to Allah and the words of the Holy Quran, as expounded to him by a local mosques imam.
The son of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father who disappeared when he was three, Ahmad turned to Islam at the age of eleven. He feels his faith threatened by the materialistic, hedonistic society he sees around him in the slumping factory town of New Prospect, in northern New Jersey. Neither the world-weary, depressed guidance counselor at Central High School, Jack Levy, nor Ahmads mischievously seductive black classmate, Joryleen Grant, succeeds in diverting the boy from what his religion calls the Straight Path. When he finds employment in a furniture store owned by a family of recently immigrated Lebanese, the threads of a plot gather around him, with reverberations that rouse the Department of Homeland Security.
But to quote the Quran: Of those who plot, God is the best.
"Ripped from the headlines doesn't begin to describe Updike's latest, a by-the-numbers novelization of the last five years' news reports on the dangers of home-grown terror that packs a gut punch. Ahmad Mulloy Ashmawy is 18 and attends Central High School in the commuter city of New Prospect, N.J. He is the son of an Egyptian exchange student who married a working-class Irish-American girl and then disappeared when Ahmad was three. Ahmad, disgusted by his mother's inability to get it together, is in the thrall of Shaikh Rashid, who runs a storefront mosque and preaches divine retribution for 'devils,' including the 'Zionist dominated federal government.'The list of devils is long: it includes Joryleen Grant, the white trash slut with a heart of gold; Tylenol Jones, a black tough guy with whom Ahmad obliquely competes for Joryleen's attentions (which Ahmad eventually pays for); Jack Levy, a Central High guidance counselor who at 63 has seen enough failure, including his own, to last him a lifetime (and whose Jewishness plays a part in a manner unthinkable before 9/11); Jack's wife, Beth, as ineffectual and overweight (Updike is merciless on this) as she is oblivious; and Teresa Mulloy, a nurse's aide and Sunday painter as desperate for Jack's attention, when he takes on Ahmad's case, as Jack is for hers. Updike has distilled all their flaws to a caustic, crystalline essence; he dwells on their poor bodies and the debased world in which they move unrelentingly, and with a dispassionate cruelty that verges on shocking. Ahmad's revulsion for American culture doesn't seem to displease Updike one iota. But Updike has also thoroughly digested all of the discursive pap surrounding the post-9/11 threat of terrorism, and that is the real story here. Mullahs, botched CIA gambits, race and class shame (that leads to poor self-worth that leads to vulnerability that leads to extremism), half-baked plots that just might work — all are here, and dispatched with an elegance that highlights their banality and how very real they may be. So smooth is Updike in putting his grotesques through their paces — effortlessly putting them in each others' orbits — that his contempt for them enhances rather than spoils the novel. 150,000-copy announced first printing (June 12)." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"John Updike's new novel is set in a New Jersey mill town that has fallen on hard times. Once home to energetic, white immigrants from Eastern Europe, this city, New Prospect, has decayed to the point where 'those who occupy the inner city now are brown, by and large, in its many shades.' Brown-ness and its discontents are central to the novel, and Updike is acutely aware of the many tints... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) and gradations of this color. The novel's principal character, 18-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, is from the lighter end of the spectrum, the product of a short-lived union between a red-haired Irish-American and 'an Egyptian exchange student whose ancestors had been baked since the time of the Pharaohs in the muddy rice and flax fields of the overflowing Nile.' Although Ahmad's color is darker than 'the freckled, blotchy pink of his red-haired mother,' it is paler than his father's, whose skin is 'perfectly matte, like a cloth that's been dipped, olive-beige with a pinch of lampblack in it.' Ahmad is, in fact, 'dun, a low-luster shade lighter than beige.' It would seem that the lack of a lustrous complexion has played no small part in giving Ahmad a sense of miscegenation, putting him at odds with the world around him: He is 'embarrassed by the mismatch' of his dun skin with his mother's freckled pinkness, which 'seems unnaturally white, like a leper's.' Ahmad's own preference 'is for darker skins, cocoa and caramel and chocolate,' and these tastes are well served by his inner-city high school, which is a confluence of muddy hues. At school, Ahmad's gaze is drawn most often to one particular redoubt of brown-ness: Joryleen, an African-American with a 'smooth body, darker than caramel but paler than chocolate.' Although his interest is amply reciprocated, Ahmad gives Joryleen no encouragement, having been warned by his mentor in Islam that 'women are animals easily led.' Besides, Joryleen already has a boyfriend, Tylenol, who is not just a very precise shade of brown — 'the color of walnut furniture-stain while it's still sitting up wet on the wood' — but is also a football player and a gymnast. Tylenol is contemptuous of Ahmad: 'Black Muslims I don't diss, but you not black, you not anything.' Actually, since the age of 11, Ahmad has been a regular at the local mosque. Having abandoned the family when Ahmad was a baby, his father has played no part in this choice. A free-thinking Bohemian and an amateur artist, his mother has let her son choose his own path, and it has led him into the hands of the mosque's imam, Shaikh Rashid, who is descended from 'generations of heavily swathed Yemeni warriors.' The heavy swathing has spared the shaikh's ancestors a baking of the kind that fell to the lot of Ahmad's forefathers in Egypt: His complexion is 'waxy white.' This hue may also account for the cadences of Rashid's English, which are curiously like those of the predatory Cambridge Arabists of another era. Vaguely effeminate in appearance, he tells Ahmad that he is a 'beautiful tutee' and frequently coos the words 'dear boy.' Ahmad's speech has a different but equally curious timbre: Although he is a native-born American and has never left the United States, he speaks as if he had learned English at a madrassa run by the Taliban. 'I of course do not hate all Americans,' he says. 'But the American way is the way of infidels. It is headed for a terrible doom.' The accent may explain why Ahmad has no friends, despite being bright, polite and good-looking in his 'flawless' dun pelt. His isolation, in any event, is complete, and it is the source of his religious and suicidal impulses. When he thinks of God, 'alone in all the starry space,' he burns with 'this yearning to join God, to alleviate His loneliness.' His naive but deeply felt religiosity makes him an easy tool for the cynical Rashid, who steers him in the direction of a terrorist cell plotting to blow up the Holland Tunnel. It falls to a teacher at Central High, Jack Levy, a non-observant Jew, to make a last-minute attempt to pull Ahmad back from the edge. Updike once wrote, 'In the strange egalitarian world of the Novel a man must earn our interest by virtue of his ... authentic sentiments.' Authenticity is, to my mind, a tall order for any novelist — mere plausibility would be enough. But there is nothing plausible about the characters of this book: Only two of them are half-way believable, and they are Jack Levy and Ahmad's Irish-American mother. It is no accident, perhaps, that neither of them is brown. Updike has clearly been at some pains to familiarize himself with Islam. Not only has he read the Koran carefully, he has also delved into scholarship on the subject. The novel features many quotations from the Koran, in Arabic, with all the scholarly paraphernalia of diacritical marks, etc. Yet the end result is that Updike is unable to cut his brown characters loose from texts, scriptures and ideologies. As for his belief that elaborate descriptions of skin color are a form of insight, it is not wholly without merit, for it does serve to occasionally enliven the prose. The flow of 'Terrorist' is constantly punctuated with riffs and diatribes on the state of contemporary America, national security, foreign policy, popular culture, technology and so on. Rashid, Ahmad and even the secretary of homeland security are given their say. But their harangues are always delivered in a slightly satirical key, as if none of it really mattered. When the terrorists' arguments are answered at all, it is usually in a register of sardonic and grudging nationalism, by conjuring up images of a past or future America. No one takes the trouble to defend secular forms of justice or government as aspects of the modern world's shared heritage. More puzzling still, no one makes any claims on behalf of that secular realm of expression that permits the practice of such arts as fiction itself. With innumerable lives at stake, when Jack Levy finds himself faced with the task of giving Ahmad a reason to live and let live, he says: 'Hey, come on, we're all Americans here. That's the idea, didn't they tell you that at Central High? Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans; there are even Arab-Americans.' Not a word about humanity, family, friendship, sport, poetry, love, laughter. It is as if a belief in American multiculturalism is the only good reason a human being could have for staying alive. Why indeed do the billions of non-Americans who walk this Earth refrain from blowing themselves up? I suspect that Updike really cannot see that they have any good reason not to. Amitav Ghosh is the author of 'The Hungry Tide' and four other novels." Reviewed by Amitav Ghosh, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"This marvelous novel can be accurately labeled as a 9/11 novel, but it deserves also the label of masterpiece for its carefully nuanced building up of the psychology of those who traffic in terrorism. Timely and topical, poised and passionate, it is a high mark in Updike's career." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Discursiveness, coincidence and a barely credible surprise ending compromise, but do not critically impair, Updike's intriguing 22nd novel....Updike, approaching his mid-70s, continues to entice, provoke and astonish. Who knows where he'll take us next?" Kirkus Reviews
"Unfortunately, the would-be terrorist in this novel turns out to be a completely unbelievable individual....Though Mr. Updike manages to extract a fair amount of suspense from Ahmad's story, he does so with the heavy reliance on unbelievable coincidence." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Updike...has written something like a teen coming-of-age story, but he wants his 24 moment too and indulges in some gratuitous button-pushing along the way....In a certain regard, Terrorist is an interesting, if failed, thought experiment." Los Angeles Times
"Terrorist leaves the reader ripping through the book to its finale, desperate to find out what happens....Updike's most adventurous and accessible novel in decades, and possibly the summer's most rewarding book for readers who want more than escapist fluff....Terrorist is one compelling and surprising ride." USA Today
"Terrorist is not without flaws. The plot turns on clunky contrivances and coincidences....Nor does the dialogue ring true....Terrorist burrows beneath the surfaces of American popular culture, which Updike traverses so well, to truths worth remembering." Philadelphia Inquirer
"[F]or all its marvelous writing and philosophical cogency, Updike's Terrorist is an awkward, overdetermined drama acted out by gritty urban characters he can't bring to life....These are characters — and this is a thriller — that Richard Price should have written. (Grade: C+)" Entertainment Weekly
"[T]he richest, most various [novel] Updike has produced in some time...very much contemporary in its apprehension of the difference made by recent events in America..." Chicago Tribune
"Updike's ability to get inside the mind of his Ahmad — to deliver the young man's devotion as well as his fear, uncertainty, and malleable innocence — is what renders the novel credible and sometimes wrenching in its authenticity." Boston Globe
"Not all of Updike's fiction over the last decade has been entirely satisfying, but Terrorist makes the case the lesson of the real masters is that we can never anticipate them or how they'll end." Houston Chronicle
"Terrorist's pages are scattered with dozens of stylistic gems....What's most welcome is the page-turning pace the book sets right from the start....We go along for this ride with a keen taste of what it takes to become the driver." Chicago Sun-Times
"Terrorist fails because Updike doesn't know Ahmad Mulloy....Somehow, for all the textual accuracy, the book never achieves anything deeper than a rhetorical truth." St. Petersburg Times
About the Author
John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of the New Yorker and since 1957 has lived in Massachusetts. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal.
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