Faith and Terror

In his latest novel, John Updike explores the nature of faith through the eyes of a would-be terrorist.

“Terrorist” by John Updike. (Knopf)

By Adrienne LaFrance

Perhaps it was a task too ambitious even for a writer as exquisitely talented as John Updike. In his latest novel, “Terrorist,” Updike’s attempts to get inside the mind of a would-be suicide bomber fall short.

A novel largely about the nature of faith, “Terrorist” follows the story of 18-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy in the four months after his graduation from high school in the fictional Northern New Jersey mill town New Prospect.

Since the age of 11, American-born Ahmad has embraced Islam, and uses his faith to fill the void left by the Egyptian father who abandoned him, and his flighty Irish mother, an ugly mix of selfish and naive, who goes through boyfriends like Kleenex.

Over the course of the summer following his graduation from high school, and under the influence of a corrupt spiritual mentor at the local mosque who convinces the straight-A student to obtain his truck driving license rather than pursue a college education, Ahmad’s intense disapproval for Western Culture jumps (with limited explanation) into a willingness to become a suicide bomber.

The filter through which Updike sees the world has long seemed like a universal lens for illuminating human nature. He is masterful at highlighting the emotional subtleties that define a person, and breathing life and authenticity into all that he imagines. But in “Terrorist,” the elements of Ahmad’s character so critical to plot development are lacking, making key portions of the story hard to believe.

Ahmad’s interest in driving trucks is initially based on the precision with which one must handle equipment (checking the air in tires, carefully wiping the windshield clean, and so forth), reflecting the discipline with which he approaches his faith.

He is too gentle a boy even to kill a bug (a characteristic that is referenced multiple times), but doesn’t think twice about committing mass murder in the name of his faith when asked by a man who looks at the Manhattan skyline and says it’s nice “to see those towers gone.”

It is also unclear as to why Ahmad believes pursuing higher education at a university that promotes ideals of Western culture would be too much a part of “Godless culture,” the “American religion of freedom” he disdains, but driving a furniture delivery truck that propels the consumerism of such a culture is forgivable.

On one hand, the discrepancy between Ahmad’s gentle nature and severe faith only compounds the incomprehensibility of terrorist acts and those willing to commit them. It is also testament to the power of radical ideology to transcend rationality. But Updike doesn’t delve deeply enough into Ahmad’s character to make such discord work in the story’s favor. When Ahmad is introduced, he is already so immersed in his faith that it’s difficult to fully understand how he got there and why he is so driven by religion.

More often, Updike uses development of other characters to emphasize Ahmad’s character. For example, there’s high school guidance counselor Jack Levy, who is Jewish but has abandoned his faith (and consciously chooses “Jack” over his given name “Jacob” as a result), and his wife Beth, who forwent her Lutheran background and parental approval to marry Jack– though they barely connect anymore, in what has become an unhappy, mundane marriage.
As usual, Updike’s attention to peripheral detail is delectable. For example, a nose ring becomes “a silver bead, holding a tiny reflection of the sky, in one nostril wing,” and Ahmad’s mother’s eyes are “pale green, like the glass bottles Coke used to come in.” Readers who can delight in these descriptions will happily forgive the portions of the book that falter.

It should be noted that where Ahmad’s character fails to keep up with the plot, a lack of understanding and exploration of Islam is not to blame. Updike has done his homework. Relevant verses from the Qu’ran appear throughout the novel, and he uses interesting dialogue to explore the Islamic faith and what it means to be Muslim, outside the context of radical Islam.

It should also be noted that the story is tightly wound, and Updike’s ability to ratchet suspense supercedes that of most writers.

Besides, Updike didn’t have to write this book, or to tackle such difficult subject matter. He is already considered one of the best American writers of all time, and it would presumably be easy for him to write what he knows for the rest of his career. That he chose to try something new is admirable. That the subject matter is so real, nearly five years after that impossibly blue-skied Tuesday morning in September, only makes the novel harder to put down.

All in all, Updike’s message is one of hopeless acceptance that the future is equally bleak for those of and without religious faith of any kind. The idea is that each man’s struggle with unhappiness rests on self-preservation as the only vehicle by which to move through life. And while “Terrorist” doesn’t represent Updike’s finest, his divergence into new (and unfamiliar) territory is rough around the edges but saved by the visceral detail and astute perspective that defines his style and reminds his readers they are alive.

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