DOASKDOTELL BOOK REVIEW of John Updike’s novel: Terrorist

Author (or Editor):  John Updike

Title:  Terrorist

Fiction? Yes

Publisher:  Knopf, New York

Date:  2006

ISBN:  0-307-26465-3

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound, 310 pgs hardbound

Relevance to doaskdotell: gays in intimate occupations similar to the military

Review: Since I am working on a novel draft that deals with this topic, however differently, Updike’s treatment was to be of interest to me.  I read some of his novels as a younger man, and he likes to dawdle on the eccentricities (aka weaknesses) of his characters, on what fundamental level of psychological integrity makes them tick, what their whole paradigms of life are. So do I, although my stuff by way of comparison moves much faster from one incident to the next.

So Updike presents us with an 18-year-old graduating high school senior, Ahmad Mulloy, who will take on the Muslim name Ashmawy. He is an attractive enough kid in some ways, but is a target of other kids because of profiling. And rather early in life, he has taken on the paradigm of Muslim ideology, as some more conservative writers present it. Updike goes in for long descriptive passages explaining all of this, with various metaphors at times. There is something, however, about going to the root about it. Ahmad is disturbed about the licentiousness of American culture, but there has to be a reason. Maybe he feels humiliated by it. Islam does offer answers for everything, a kind of final reconciliation. At one point the kids call him a faggot, and on page 98, he writes “Instead, there are whistles and hoots behind him, as if he is a white girl with pretty legs.” Well, Caucasian teenage boys (unless they are competitive swimmers or cyclists and sometimes not even then, and Ahmad is mostly Caucasian – partly Egyptian -- even if darker) shouldn’t have “pretty legs.”

I digress here. I see a parallel. Straight men don’t like to see sexuality discussed too frankly, because that might expose their weaknesses. Homosexuals set themselves up as arbitrators as to which males are the most deserving of being ancestors, perhaps, so their presence (like in the military) puts straight men on edge. Homosexuals like meritocracy, too, just like straight men do, in terms of having ownership of families (in “Days of our Lives” fashion). So the only logical reconciliation seems to be “don’t ask don’t tell” – a certain silence and hypocrisy about the most sensitive matters. I think you could probably take Muslim ideology and work through to a similar paradox. Updike loves this kind of personal stuff and lives in it.

Updike makes Ahmad’s going down into radical Islam look rather inevitable for his background, but in practice it usually is not. I have known of teens born in Pakistan and raised in the West – Britain, Germany or the U.S., and winding up seeing no personal reason to revert back to this ideology. It seems to be a matter of how you compete.

Updike bombards us with all kinds of trendy things – at one point he gives us movie tidbits (American Graffiti) related to high school. His other characters, like the guidance counselor Levy, seem as plastic, malleable, and unable to drive themselves as Ahmad, who, despite book smarts, doesn’t want to go to college and plans to become a truck driver. Here Updike starts to educate us on the hazards of commercial trucking – the multiple choice safety tests that they have to pass, the illegal combinations of chemicals. Nevermind the constant train of horrible trucking accidents on the Beltway and other freeways around Washington and Baltimore.

 Ahmad does not have long to get to know the adult world, as he is driven into the moral maze of his teachers and of Sayyid Qutb. He experiences an encounter with a girl; Updike gets flowerly with that but all the tension doesn't come to much. Updike starts slipping in and out of present tense, the way an electrocardiogram jumps in and out of sinus rhythm, perhaps. The plot will be pretty obvious, if he is driving a truck, and I don't want to give the details. Updike goes into a lot of speculations of the really horrible things that could happen. There will not be a failure of imagination. Let us say that it bears a connection to the 1996 Stallone film Daylight (which Updike doesn't mention, as I recall), and the recent broken plot with the Path. The guidance counselor comes back in to the picture, with murky motive. Does he want to die? Updike writes "Once you run out of steam, America doesn't give you much. It doesn't even let you die, what with the hospitals sucking all the money they can out of Medicare." Yet there can be other reasons. Another family, a child in particular, a bystander, accidentally gets involved and may give Ahmad a chance to change his mind. He may have a way out. The last pages could have been imagined by Nevil Shute.    


 Film: Daylight

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