Terrorist, by John Updike

Is America fit for freedom?
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The Independent Culture

John Updike has written 52 books. I have read most of them, and every Updike is a beacon in my reading year. Updike's themes, with a few exceptions, are place, human yearning (which covers art, sex, and religion), and America, in both its physical and mythical guises. His latest, Terrorist, treats with all of these: but America's place in the world, America's consumerism, America's cut-price spirituality, America's lost innocence and America's obesity, are specifically his pre-occupations here.

From the first page it is clear that Ahmad Mulloy, the son of a long-departed Egyptian father and a feckless Irish-American mother, is being groomed as a suicide bomber in a walk-up mosque on the back streets of Newark, New Jersey. He is a senior at the local high school which has become an inner city nightmare, where girls routinely give blowjobs in the toilets and there are armed guards at the gates. His mother, Terry, is an auxiliary nurse who paints large, garish canvasses in her spare time. The surrounding neighbourhoods have changed over 40 years, from solid Jewish manufacturing, to the new realities of poor immigrant businesses and dilapidated and gimcrack building. The hopelessly anarchic high school is a reflection of these changes and it here that Jack Levy, 63 years old, is a teacher and careers counsellor.

It is instantly apparent that Levy, a Sixties idealist who has never left New Jersey, and young Ahmad, are destined to become entwined. Levy's wife Beth is "a whale of a woman, giving off too much heat through her blubber" for Jack, who is, like all Updike's men, very physically aware of women. Rather improbably she is the sister of the Undersecretary of Homeland Security in Washington DC. But her main purpose in the book is to exemplify the obesity and concomitant laxness of American society. I lost count of the number of times Updike describes characters as fat, heavy-set or obese; he also takes a Swiftean delight in their smells and odours. Ahmad, by contrast, is lean, fastidious and an observant Muslim, having adopted his lost father's religion. Joyleen, a black girl at the school to who he is attracted, lives in an entirely different world of immediate and heedless ghetto values.

Many years ago in The Coup, Updike showed a familiarity with the Qu'ran, but now he has clearly made a new study. What we quickly realise is that this is a novel designed to raise serious questions about American's fitness - in every sense of that word - to carry the torch for freedom and democracy. Jack Levy stands for the old, lost, America; Jack's wife for the comforts of mindless consumerism and Ahmad, encouraged by his sinister imam, for a kind of misogynistic, purblind, anti-Americanism. The Qu'ran provides him with ample texts for this detestation of infidel weakness. It's a brave antithesis that Updike presents.

Jack Levy becomes involved with Terry Mulloy, and Ahmad is persuaded to learn to drive a truck. It is not difficult to guess why the imam and some mysterious Lebanese furniture salesmen would want him to do this. As the well-signposted climax approaches, the tension increases and we find that, in addition to all his other gifts, Updike writes a gripping thriller. There are a few infelicities, the most serious being an improbably large dose of the Upkidean sensibility in the observations on buildings, moral decline, loss of rural peace and so on. And Ahmad, at times, sounds as stilted as a wise man in a Hollywood film. Despite these very minor quibbles I think this is a book that must be read by anyone interested in America, terrorism and serious literature.

As I started to read this book I had an aberrant thought: how would I react if Updike were 24 years old, rather than 74, and this were the first Updike I had ever read? The answer is that I would have hailed an astonishingly gifted, diligent and serious new voice.

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