John Updike has tried and largely failed to convey the interior life of an Arab-American terrorist. Still, it is always a pleasure to watch a master at workby Erik Tarloff / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
Terrorist by John Updike (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99)
John Updike is a master, and even in his less successful novels, the things he can do well, he does superbly.
Terrorist is one of those less successful novels. Like The Coup and Brazil, it represents one of Updike’s periodic forays into exotic territory, a departure from his usual repertory company of east coast middle-class strivers, academics and clerics and business people struggling to get ahead, to contend with their unruly and inconvenient appetites, and to make sense of the gaudy chaos of contemporary American society. This time, his exotic isn’t situated in the third world; Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, the book’s protagonist, is home-grown, a native of the fading factory town New Prospect, New Jersey, adolescent son of an Irish-American mother and a long-since absconded Egyptian father. His world may contain its share of familiar Updike types—his mother, a struggling nurse’s aid and aspiring painter with a messy history of amatory misjudgements, and his high school guidance counsellor, an ageing depressive Jew with an obese wife and a frustrating job—but there are also figures without direct precedent in Updike’s fiction, such as an unctuous, sinister Yemeni imam, and a family of Lebanese émigrés operating a dubious used-furniture shop. Ahmad is a devoted Muslim, and the novel follows his covert recruitment and then willing participation in a terrorist plot to blow up the Lincoln tunnel.
Updike has always been conscientious about mastering his material, and Terrorist is no exception. When writing Rabbit is Rich, in which Harry Angstrom runs a Toyota dealership, Updike reportedly worked part-time in just such an establishment to learn the day-to-day particulars of the business. In Roger’s Version he appears to command a thorough grasp of both computer science and molecular biology. In this current novel, the Koran is quoted extensively, and some controversies within Islamic theology are given an airing. Nevertheless, in contrast to those earlier books, the erudition on display here seems a slightly show-offy demonstration of learning gleaned solely for the purpose of appearing in this novel, and of lending it verisimilitude.
This problem is emblematic of the novel as a whole. For a book like this, with a title character whose identity and personal trajectory are on the surface irredeemable to western readers, its ultimate success or failure may depend on whether he emerges full and vibrant and believable on the page, whether his consciousness…