Terrorist by John Updike


 Paperback: 320 pages

  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks (May 29, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345493915
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345493910


“Charlie is asking him a question, “Would you fight them, then?”

Ahmad has missed what “them” refers to, but says “Yes” as if answering a roll call.

Charlie  appears to repeat himself, “Would you fight with your life?”

“How do you mean?”

Charlie is insistent; his brow bears down. “Would you give your life?”

The sun leans on Ahmad’s neck. “Of course,” he says, trying to lighten the exchange with a flicking gesture of his right hand. “If God wills it.”

– Terrorist

Ahmad comes from a broken home, the product of a marriage between an Egyptian man with commitment issues and an Irish-American mother who struggles to support them.  Despite his love for his mother, it’s his father who seems to hold the key to his identity. He turns to Islam as a way of reconnecting with his lost father and comes under the control of an extremist, who convinces him to join the jihad and fight the Americans with everything he has, including his own life.

Not a popular kid in school, Ahmad is pushed around a lot.   He’s bullied and taunted with the nickname “Arab,” which only fuels the fire. He decides all Americans are brutish infidels, convincing him terrorism is his one avenue of revenge.

Jack (Jacob) Levy is the high school guidance counselor with a generous heart and an unfulfilling home life.  He seeks comfort with Ahmad’s mother, a much younger woman, partly to escape the frustrating nature of his work, and partly because his own wife, Beth, has grown so fat they no longer have any intimacy between them.  Because he is around Ahmad’s home so often, Jack becomes suspicious something’s up. He has a feeling Ahmad’s headed down a path to destruction and he’s desperate to make sure that doesn’t happen.

It’s an interesting irony that Updike chose a Jewish character for this role, considering the enmity between the two cultures. Jack is a lapsed Jew, having lost his faith long ago.  How different he is from Ahmad, who is trying so desperately to hold onto his own faith, to follow the “Straight Path,” despite all the temptations of modern American life. Yet, Jack feels such a connection to the boy.  He can’t just sit back and watch him ruin his life; he knows what potential Ahmad has.

On the whole, Terrorist is a tepid book.  Updike’s intent was to get inside the head of a Muslim-American young man, to show the conflict between enjoying the freedom and comforts of American life while, at the same time, dealing with an impotent sense of rage at what’s happening to the Muslim people at the hands of the American military.  The problem is, it does so only halfheartedly, stopping short of pulling back the curtain to show what’s churning underneath. Terrorists and terrorism are anything but lukewarm, yet Terrorist lacks passion.

Perhaps that was Updike’s message, that many would-be terrorists are just kids, like Ahmad, who don’t feel burning hatred.  They fall under the spell of others who push them into giving their lives for a cause they don’t fully understand. They give lip service to the necessity of violence to advance their cause, but when it comes down to it they don’t fully understand any of it.  Spoon-fed ideas about duty, as well as hatred of all things Western, impressionable young people can be easily led.  While we get a sense of the feelings of guilt and conflict Ahmad goes through, somehow the book just misses emotionally connecting with the reader.

The book simply didn’t make the impact it could have, disappointingly. For such an iconic writer, it’s surprising Updike fell so short of the mark. Whatever the reason, Terrorist was far from the book it could have been.

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