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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