Thank you to frequent guest-reviewer Nancy West, who sent in this review of John Updike's latest novel, Terrorist. (I apologize for the formatting - it won't let me insert spaces between paragraphs, for some reason).
Because Ahmad is a disenfranchised and unhappy adolescent of Middle Eastern descent, because he studies the Koran faithfully with an imam of unclear motives, because the imam sets him up with a job driving eighteen-wheelers for a furniture company owned by Middle Eastern immigrants, because the novel is set in the spring and summer of 2006, and because its title is Terrorist, we can pretty much see where things are most likely going. To say this is a novel that examines the question of homegrown terrorism should not be construed in any way as a plot spoiler. It’s just that – a question, not a foregone conclusion.
Having read the basic Updike canon when I was in college, I had not picked up any of his novels in years, mostly because I find the pervasive misogyny to be both antiquated and off-putting. But when I heard last spring that Updike had written a novel from the point of view of a young man apparently destined to become a homegrown terrorist, I was intrigued. Despite my lack of interest in Updike novels overall, I do acknowledge his stature as one of our era’s leading American novelists, and it seemed to me that it would take a writer of Updike’s status to pull off the challenge that this novel presents. Other than perhaps Joyce Carol Oates, I couldn’t imagine another writer who could do it, and so I went ahead and read it.
Terrorist is a highly engaging account of an 18-year-old named Ahmad Mulloy Ashmawy raised in a small apartment by a single mother in a bleak and depressing working-class New Jersey community. The fact that Updike chose to make his narrator a high school senior rather than an adult poses one of the first interesting questions of the novel. While it’s easy on the one hand to think of Ahmad as having anti-government proclivities because of his ethnic heritage, we soon learn that his ethnic heritage is essentially incidental: the mother who raised him is Irish-American; the father who represents the Middle Eastern half of his genetic makeup abandoned the boy in early childhood. Ahmad seems to have chosen to self-identify as Muslim and Middle Eastern more as a way of rejecting his working-class New Jersey side than because he’s had any positive influences from that heritage. It is solely his choice to study the Koran with a radical Muslim cleric; his generally hands-off mother is perplexed by his interest but unsure as to whether it poses an actual danger or is just another dubious choice of the kind that adolescents make all the time.
And therein lies an interesting thematic element of Terrorist. What if his tendencies stem not from the fact that he’s half Egyptian but instead from the possibility that this is simply the most extreme end of the troubled-adolescent spectrum? If, say, a normal male teen fights with his parents, a slightly more rebellious one takes illegal drugs, and a highly unstable kid commits a school shooting – then can we assume that the most extreme expression of teen rebellion would be to commit an act of large-scale terrorism?
Updike’s metaphors are simultaneously thought-provoking and easily accessible. Terrrorist raises a host of intriguing questions about American life, teen culture, disenfranchisement and zealotry. When this novel first came out, it seemed that many reviewers focused on the question of whether they “bought” the notion of Updike being able to speak from the perspective of a teenage might-be terrorist. My feeling is that it doesn’t really matter whether Updike is entirely credible or not – to me, it was interesting enough simply to find out how he would envision the situation, whether or not he could be considered completely convincing. I read this novel for both the subject matter and the skill of the writer, and I was not disappointed in either regard.