A novel about a mad bomber by John Updike —why not? When
White Noise was published, nobody gave Don DeLillo any shit for moving to the suburbs. Like the straying husbands and bored housewives in his stories, it’s not as if Updike has ever restricted himself to the marital bedroom. Despite an image as a New England mandarin, the caretaker of the bourgeois domestic novel—our homegrown Flaubert—the gangly kid from rural Pennsylvania has already loped through a varied thicket of genres, returning with a catch of oddities— The Centaur, The Coup, Brazil.
But those were funhouse larks. (“I have a certain weakness for my Nabokovian books,” he told a recent interviewer. “I like [his] tricks.”) Updike remains at his best when he tries to do nothing more gimmicky than to document contemporary American life, the way he did in the Rabbit and the Bech series. Though his 22nd novel is of all things a political thriller, it drinks from the zeitgeist’s trough as greedily as “Bech Noir” and “Rabbit Remembered,” two of the grand master’s other late-career surprises.
The terrorist in question is New Jersey high school senior Ahmad Mulloy, the son of an Irish American nurse’s aide (and would-be painter) and an Egyptian father who “knew that marrying an American citizen, however trashy and immoral she was, would gain him American citizenship.” Ahmad wants to assume Ashmawy as his last name, although he regards his old man, who abandoned them years ago, disapprovingly. His teachers are deplorable too—”weak Christians and nonobservant Jews”—as are his classmates. All of them, as far as Ahmad is concerned, are lazing in a fattening materialist stupor.
Proudly aloof from the conventional forms of juvenile rebellion practiced by his peers, Ahmad seals himself off in fastidious dress—black denim stovepipe floods, and always a pressed, glaringly white shirt (“How’s your mother stand doing all that ironing?”). He further distinguishes himself by studying the Qur’an with Shaikh Rashid, a local imam and the kind of manipulative fiend Hawthorne used to conjure. The shaikh encourages his pupil to skip college and take a job piloting a delivery truck for Excellency Home Furnishings. There, Ahmad befriends Charlie, the Lebanese owner’s son, who lures him into a plot against America.
Updike’s ear for teen slang has dulled, and a number of his racial stereotypes are, let’s just say, dated. Still, he hasn’t lost sympathy for adolescent torment, and to the extent Terrorist succeeds it does so thanks to his skilled rendering of a sensitive, overly serious, angry young man. Ahmad, like a lot of virgins his age, can be terribly strident, a real pill. “I know my son is eighteen and shouldn’t be so naïve,” his mother explains to his school counselor, “but he still expects adults to be absolutely sincere and sure of things.”
Sincerity, you might recall, wasn’t especially prized during the dreary campaign summer of 2004, when Terrorist takes place. Ahmad’s moral outrage is a far cry from Harry Angstrom’s optimism, or for that matter from Updike’s stated political views. A lifelong Democrat, Updike bristles when others call him a hawk, but in a chapter of his 1989 autobiography entitled “On Not Being a Dove” he defended his nation’s involvement in Vietnam: “It was Athens and Sparta, light and shadow. Ours was the distinctly better mousetrap.” These are terms, obviously, which the current administration could comfortably use to promote their war on terror.
And yet if Terrorist is any indication, in the five years since he witnessed the twin towers crumble from his son’s Brooklyn Heights apartment, Updike has been re-evaluating his perspective. Among the few genuinely despicable characters in the book is the secretary of Homeland Security, who, though he goes by the name Haffenreffer, matches the physical description of fellow Pennsylvania native Tom Ridge: “In his massive head his mouth looks truculently small. His haircut, on that same head, also looks small, like a hat belonging to someone else but jammed on anyway.” When Haffenreffer receives intel about a planned attack on New York, he worries that “there’ll be no sitting on fat-cat boards for me. No speaker’s fees. No million-dollar advance on my memoirs.”
Hawk or dove—does it matter? Updike appears to have had a genuine spiritual change of heart. When he has written about his Protestant faith in the past, he has frequently sounded as pious and unforgiving as Karl Barth, the anti-Modernist theologian he admires; or, perhaps more tellingly, as sincere and certain of things as young Muslim Ahmad wishes adults could be. Terrorist ends in a whimper, and that’s not solely because of the series of contrived circumstances that literally defuse the possibility of any bang. The lackluster tone of the closing scene has a lulling effect, so that we hardly are ready for the final perfect sob of a sentence in which our protagonist’s deepest fear is silently realized: “These Devils, Ahmad thinks, have taken away my God.” Ahmad’s loss of faith echoes, appropriately enough, the first sentence of a grim story Updike wrote four years ago about an Episcopalian who sees the burning south tower fall: “There is no God.” Someone please tell George Bush and the evildoers.