John Updike writing about terrorism? The bard of the middle-class mundane, the chronicler of suburban adultery and angst, tackling Islamic radicalism and the call to jihad?
In theory Updike's shopworn new novel, Terrorist, not only gives him an opportunity to address a thoroughly topical subject but also represents an effort to stretch his imagination -- to try to boldly go where he has never gone before, as he did with considerable elan in his African novel, The Coup (1978), and with decidedly less happy results in Brazil, his misbegotten 1994 variation of the Tristan and Iseult legend.
At the same time, it offers Updike a chance to explore some of his perennial themes from a different angle: to look at the sexually permissive mores that his other characters have embraced through the disapproving eyes of an ascetic, religious man, and to contemplate this man's absolute and unwavering faith, which is so disimilar to the the existential doubts and tentative yearnings for salvation evinced by Updike's earlier creations.
Unfortunately, the would-be terrorist in this novel turns out to be a completely unbelievable individual: more robot than human being and such a cliche that the reader cannot help suspecting that Updike found the idea of such a person so incomprehensible that he at some point abandoned any earnest attempt to depict his inner life and settled instead for giving us a static, one-dimensional stereotype.
Terrorist possesses none of the metaphysical depth of classic novelistic musings on revolutionaries like The Secret Agent, The Possessed or The Princess Casamassima, and none of the staccato, sociological brilliance of more recent fictional forays into this territory, like Don DeLillo's Mao II.
For that matter, the journalistic portraits of the Sept. 11 hijackers that Terry McDermott of The Los Angeles Times pieced together -- from interviews with acquaintances of the hijackers, The 9/11 Commission Report and material from interrogations of captured terrorists -- in his 2005 book Perfect Soldiers are a hundred times more fascinating, more nuanced and more psycho-logically intriguing than the cartoonish stick figure named Ahmad whom Updike has created in these pages.
Ahmad, we quickly learn, is the only child of an Irish-American nurse's aide and her Egyptian husband, who decamped a few years after his son's birth. Ahmad is now a senior at a public high school in a fading industrial town in New Jersey; he plays soccer in the fall and runs track in the spring. Despite his decent grades, he has recently switched from the college track to the vocational one: After graduation, he plans to become a truck driver -- at the behest of his mentor, the imam at the local mosque, where Ahmad has been studying the Koran. His high school guidance counselor, Jack Levy, finds this career choice more than a little perplexing.
At 18, Ahmad is a virgin and expresses a deep disgust with sex. He rails against the decadence and dissipation he sees around him: the skimpily dressed girls at school, his mother's blowzy attire, the lewd and lascivious words he hears on the radio and the tele-vision. He declares that he seeks "to walk the Straight Path" -- something that is not easy to do, he thinks, in a country where "there are too many paths, too much selling of many useless things." He is given to saying things like "the American way is the way of infidels," and the country "is headed for a terrible doom." Or: "Purity is its own end." Or: "I thirst for Paradise."