TERRORIST by John Updike (Knopf), 320 pages, $32.95 cloth. Rating: N Rating: N
Terrorist, a novel with a disarm- ingly timely theme, starts out very badly. All-believing anti-hero Ahmad is approached by Joryleen, who comes on drenched in sex, and you immediately think, "Oh puh-lease, don't tell me that white old guy John Updike is going to claim that cock-teasers create terrorists?"
To be fair, Updike doesn't stay with that theme for long. Instead, he traces how 18-year-old Ahmad, the son of a mixed marriage who turned to Islam when he was 11, becomes more Muslim than everybody, except, of course, for the manipulative local imam.
Also on hand is Jewish guidance counsellor Jack Levy, alienated in his own way from his job and his wife, who has an affair with Ahmad's single mother, who's worried about what seems to be happening to her intelligent and thoughtful son. Of course, he never discusses this with her Updike's cheating husbands haven't suddenly become great communicators when it comes to relationships.
Updike suggests that it's because Ahmad's Muslim dad left the family when he was a tot that the boy feels compelled to overcompensate when it comes to staying faithful to Allah and turns to the imam as a father figure. Right, blame single mothers for homegrown terrorism.
And he presses the point that America, with its hyper-sexualized and values-challenged pop culture, is a breeding ground for extremist fundamentalists. But you just know he's guessing. In interviews, Updike describes driving around the mosques in working-class New Jersey as research, but there is nothing in this book to suggest that he did much else.
Updike can write which is not exactly news but superlative prose, even the last sublimely tension-filled section in which Jack and Ahmad talk inside the truck that's set to detonate as they drive through the Lincoln tunnel, can't save this piece of amateur psychology.
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