John Updike and his Terrorist

JOHN UPDIKEJack Levy, even to the mismatching suit and trousers, is sort of a version of my father, who was also a patient plodder and involved in school teaching…So this book has a kind of Rabbit in it in the form of Ahmad, a kind of a reckless guy on the move operating out of gut instinct that God loves him. Then you have the centaur kind of figure, the plodding, horse-like, patient, dogged civil servant. It occurs to me that any writer has a few types, a few moral exemplars that he reverts to, and I may have reverted in this book to two of mine.

John Updike on Open Source

It is made to sound like big news that John Updike has written a thriller — with a page-turning spiritual crisis behind the wheel of a truck full of explosives in the Lincoln Tunnel entering Manhattan. It is made to sound presumptuous (maybe preposterous) for a white-haired novelist on the North Shore of Boston to be putting his imagination into the head of an 18-year-old half-Egyptian boy from rusted-out immigrant New Jersey. It can seem to be politically incorrect (perhaps even a violation of the mysteries of faith!) for a self-consciously Christian Updike to build a critical vision of contemporary America on his reading of the Qur’an.

But seriously, aren’t these all the provocative purposes for which God created novelists, and most especially the subtle and studious and brave John Updike?

I have a memory of Updike remarking years ago that as he wrote the part of a lady cellist in The Witches of Eastwick, he’d gone to Briggs & Briggs, the old music store in Harvard Square, to buy cello scores, and had handled the neck and fingerboard of a borrowed instrument until he could feel and recount the thickness of the four strings under his hand. I also recall the novelist Alexander Theroux saying once: “If you want to know what moon dust feels like under your feet, forget the astronauts. Send John Updike!”

Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, What else is there to see? Boys strut and saunter along and look dead-eyed, indicating with their edgy killer gestures and careless scornful laughs that this world is all there is — a noisy varnished hall lined with metal lockers and having at its end a blank wall desecrated by graffiti and roller-painted over so often it feels to be coming closer by millimeters.

The teachers, weak Christians and nonobservant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief. They are paid to say these things, by the city of New Prospect and the state of New Jersey. They lack true faith; they are not on the Straight Path; they are unclean…

From the opening page of Terrorist by John Updike, excerpted in Time Magazine, May 27, 2006

Terrorist is cinematic and political — wonderfully so, as I read it. It may be as close to the movie Syriana as we’ll ever get from Updike.

It’s not for me to vouch that he nailed every answer here. But I can report the huge pleasure for one reader — picking up a piece of our conversation recently on The Great American Novel — in “public” fiction, masterfully made, encompassing the depressive high-school guidance counsellor Jack Levy, and the hateful Secretary of Homeland Security, whose name sounds like Haffenreffer; and at the center of it all, Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy at the brink of manhood, flickering between earnestness and extremism, trying to solidify a Muslim consciousness in what feels like a wasteland of selfishness and materialism.

“But the human spirit asks for self-denial,” Ahmad tells his almost-girlfriend Joryleen. “It longs to say ‘No’ to the physical world.”

We’ll talk with John Updike on Monday night about where it all ends, and precisely how Updike got there.

But there’s a puzzle here for all of us: who can imagine the stock of ingredients in a modern-day home-grown American suicide-bombing terrorist? What might be the religious creed in the soup? Who would be the historical and contemporary heroes of the bomb-thrower you could conjure?

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  • joshua hendrickson

    I don’t care for Updike’s fiction; the point of view of a middle-American Christian conservative simply isn’t interesting or original enough to sustain me through a narrative set in the real world; after all, the Christian conservative pov is the mainstream, and I don’t see much of anything new coming from there. Oddly enough, conservative povs don’t bother me in a frankly fantastic setting; Gene Wolfe’s science fiction has a strong conservative Catholic background, after all. But then, Gene Wolfe is a much better writer than pretty much anyone out there, including the much overrated Updike.

  • scribe5

    Why even bother to post then, Josh?

    Calling Updike a “middle-American Christian conservative” isn’t much of an insult.

    Besides, if you had bothered to read his fiction you would know that he is neither “middle american,” nor “christian.” As to his being conservative, that depends on what the meaning of “is” is.

  • Potter

    John Updike spoke at my son’s graduation a number of years ago and he was uplifting. I have read some of his pieces in the New Yorker Magazine and some of his poetry as well. I really loved poetry so much that I bought the collection “Tossing and Turning” when it came out which has the delightful poem “Dutch Cleanser”. I still buy Dutch Cleanser just because of that poem:

    (first stanza)

    My grandmother used it, Dutch Cleanser,

    in the dark Shillington house,

    in the kitchen darkened by the grape arbor,

    and I was frightened of the lady on the can.

    Why was she carrying a stick?

    Why couldn’t we see her face?

    (end stanza)

    I clipped “Granite” from the New Yorker in 1990 and tucked it in that book:

    ( first two stanzas)

    New England doesn’t kid around;

    it wears its bones outside.

    Quartz-freckled, time rumpled granite

    your tombstone everywhere.

    At night I wake and warily gaze

    at outcroppings on my lawn.

    These moonlit humpbacks, do they sleep

    or do their blanched surfaces sense my eyes?

    (end )

  • zeke317

    Since he is a long time observer of the American scene, I would be interested in Mr. Updike’s view on whether there are aspects of his terrorist that are comparable to other home grown terrorists: McVeigh, Columbine killers, etc.

  • joshua hendrickson

    Scribe5; okay, okay, just flapping my gums; it’s not much of an excuse to post, I agree. However, while “middle American Christian conservative” is not meant as an insult, it is no cause for praise either, in my opinion. Anyway, I confess that my readings of Updike are limited, and at any rate I see him through the comparative lens of Gore Vidal, whose fiction is to me much more interesting, but who will of course never get the same respect from the mainstream as Updike. At least I will say that I come away from the interview (to which I just now finished listening) with some greater respect for Updike’s intelligence, which I think I may have previously undervalued.

  • scribe5

    Well, Joshua, after listening to the show I was struck by how much more persuasive he was then his host, Chris Leyden who kept asking the most mind numbing questions and making the most absurd comments.

    Does Chris really think that Zarqawi was chopping people’s heads off to prove his “Arabic manhood?”

  • jeffsiddiqui

    As was driving home at about 9:30 p.m. on Monday, I was listening to Open Source, on KUOW, my NPR station.

    I sat imprisoned in my van on I-5 as I listened helplessly to Christopher Lydon interview John Updike on his latest book “Terrorist”.

    I experienced what is probably the same helpless feeling as Blacks must have felt when they would hear “intellectual discourses” on the natural inferiority of the Black Man…so dispassionate and so casually, matter-of-factly, callous!

    I suppose I should not cringe when I witness another Muslim-bashing event after 9-11 when free licenses were issued to bash all Arabs and Muslims to one’s heart’s content, but I do. I suppose I should not be disappointed or frustrated but I still am; evidence perhaps, of the idealist in me that keeps insisting that things will become “right” again.

    Then things go down another step.

    I recognize that as a piece of fiction, Updike has the right to cast his heroes and villains as he pleases but could people please, just let up on Islam?

    Just a little?

    A was about to breathe a sigh of relief as Christoher Lydon asked Updike how he studied the Quran so he might be able to write his book with some authority…great question!

    Updike responded that he had “studied” the Quran completely and found so many places where Muslims are enjoined to kill infidels.

    I waited in vain for Chris to press forward and ask for some specifics but he did not and yes, I was disappointed because those “places” are guaranteed to have been taken out of context.

    Updike did not “study” the Quran and then get hit by inspiration to write “Terrorist”. He most likely HAD the book mentally written and was simply using the Quran to find quotes that would substantiate his book!

    If Updike was looking for references, then naturally, he would take sentences out of context as he clearly did; naturally, he would take verses out of context as he must have also done.

    I have seen this happen way too often to be pained by such shallow tactics but I am.

    Any idiot can find a passage in the Quran or any other holy book that says, “…kill the infidel…”.

    It takes just a little more character to read the preceding passage and see that the perceived exhortation to “kill the infidel” might start by saying something like, “blessed are the peacemakers…” or, “if they still attack you after your attempts to keep peace…” or, “when the enemy is vanquished or asks for peace, you shall stop the war…”

    But then, what how might one write a book like “Terrorist”?

    One could try and write the book the way it was written without bringing the “truth” of Islam into it but by showing that the man in the book was interpreting his own version of the Quran.

    Lydon can be excused for not knowing enough about Islam to press and probe Updike but he cannot be excused for allowing a faith to be sullied while Lydon, as host, maintained his cowardly though “courteous” silence.

    I can assure Lydon that Muslims listening did not think Lydon was being “courteous” but that he was being an accomplice to bigotry.

  • scribe5

    “Any idiot can find a passage in the Quran or any other holy book that says, “…kill the infidel…â€?.”

    Please Siddiqi, stop the bullshit.

    It’s not what the infidel idiots find in the Quran that leads to murder, it’s what believing Mulsims find there that allowes them to justify beheading infidels.

  • joshua hendrickson

    Siddiqui, in my opinion, there is no reason that Chris Lydon cannot allow “a faith to be sullied” because, imo, all faiths deserve at the very least to be questioned and examined and criticized, which might be considered “sullying” by the faithful, but if so, tough. Any idea or creed which is brought to the table deserves respect but does not deserve to be treated as sacred. And anyway, calling Lydon “an accomplice to bigotry” ignores the fact that a religious identity is not equivalent to a racial identity, which is no one’s choice, but instead can be chosen, adopted, or renounced … and what we choose to be is a legitimate target for criticism. As an atheist in a world full of the faithful, I know what kind of a target I make … and I know what targets the faithful make as well.

  • scribe5

    By all means all religions should be criticized.

    It never ceases to amaze me that people who kill in the name of their religion want others to respect their faiths.

    Respect you for killing? Sure I’ll respect you as a killer but I will also demand your arrest and the sanctioning of your beliefs.

  • birdbrain

    If the tenor of this thread begins verging on…uhm…let’s say, heated, its participants might consider off-shoring it to here:

    —where you’ll find a small but budding group of ROS devotees beginning to strike up a tangential conversation, and tangents off many other ROS topics.

    To join this new Enthusiasts’ Speakeasy, go to the Group Maps link – – and then give yourself a bit of time to learn how to navigate and operate within the Speakeasy’s ‘walls’. It’s got plenty of compelling features, like the chance to ‘preview’ and edit your posts, the option to start tangent threads, lengthier threads divided into multiple pages, and: an option for email notifications of responses to your posts!

    We hope to see you there.

    Support Radio Open Source!

  • scribe5

    I read some of the posts on

    I’ll pass posting there.

    It’s really depressing to read post showing sympathy for potential suicide bombers like Lindh.

    Just because Islam is the “fasted growing religion” doesn’t make it a salutary phenomenon.

  • chilton1

    scribe5- is Islam the “fasted growing religion�?

    I thought it was Pentecostalism

  • jose4canuc

    I would like to read the article about the “chicken coup” consumers. He mentions this in the first 15 minutes but there is no bibliographic information available. Does anyone else know where I can obtain this article?

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