TERRORIST by John Updike, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006, $24.95, 310 pages, hardcover.
This perhaps the first book by John Updike wherein the presence of God has made much of a difference to one of the characters, especially to the extent that it keeps a character from losing his virginity. God is the most important subject one could write about, and Updike has said that his three main themes are God, sex, and art. Would that he had said “love,” or “Eros,” instead of sex, but it is obvious that by sex he means the whole complex tangle (indeed he excels at descriptions of it) of relations between the sexes in which love and lust mingle and change into and back out of one another. Venus always wins out, in Updike’s world. Even in Roger’s Version, one of his most religious books, in which one of the characters tries to prove the existence of God with a computer, even there God takes a back seat, so to speak, to Venus.
In Terrorist, however, God is a blazing reality to the main character, Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, son of an Egyptian father who left him and his mother when Ahmad was three, and an Irish-American woman, Teresa Mulloy, a lapsed Catholic with the usual baggage of a cradle Catholic who came of age in the wake of the ugly implementation of Vatican Two. For Ahmad, Allah is closer than the vein in his neck. God is to Ahmad, in Christian terms, the living God into whose hands one would not want to fall, who came not to bring peace, but the sword.
Ahmad is even more serious about Allah than the imam who teaches him Arabic from the Qur’an every week. “He [the imam, Shaikh Rashid] seeks to soften the Prophet’s words, to make them blend with human reason, but they were not meant to blend: they invade our human softness like a sword. Allah is sublime beyond all particulars. There is no God but He the Living, the Self-Subsistent; He is the light by which the sun looks black.”
Ahmad is not only more devoted to Allah than his imam, he is also more serious about life than his single mother, forty years old, who has had a string of feckless lovers, but no second husband. Ahmad, 18, and soon to graduate from high school at the novel’s beginning, has never given her any trouble except when he was eleven years old and took a stand to devote himself to Allah as known in Islam. But, even then, all this has required of her is that she drive him to a weekly meeting with his imam until he is old enough to walk the city streets by himself.
The novel tells the story of how Ahmad, under the guidance of Rashid, a Yemeni, decides to not go to college, but instead become a truck driver. After Ahmad gets his commercial license, limited to the state of New Jersey (the novel takes place in fictional New Prospect), through Rashid’s connections he gets a job with a furniture company owned by two Lebanese brothers, the Chebabs.
Ahmad is challenged by the other main character of the novel, Jack Levy, the guidance counselor at Ahmad’s high school, to do something more with his life than drive a truck. Levy is a middle-aged Jew who has never been religious, yet has been committed to helping students. He is married to a once attractive, now obese woman with whom he has not been intimate in a long time. Levy becomes interested in helping Ahmad, who has high SAT scores, yet is in the “voke” slot at school, so one night the guidance counselor visits the apartment where Ahmad lives with his mother. Levy talks with Teresa Mulloy about Ahmad’s future, they are attracted to one another, of course; how could one read an Updike novel that doesn’t include at least one episode depicting adultery (though the act happens later in the novel). Levy leaves behind some college catalogues, but Ahmad is interested only in his trucker’s rule book.
This is after an episode in which a fellow student, Joryleen Grant, invites Ahmad to hear her sing at her church:
He [Ahmad] is shocked, repelled. “I am not of your faith,” he reminds her solemnly.
Her response is airy, careless. “Oh, I don’t take that all that seriously,” she says. “I just love to sing.”
“Now you have made me sad, Joryleen,” Ahmad says. “If you don’t take your religion seriously, you shouldn’t go.”
This passage pleasantly reminded me of Chesterton’s writing that if you can’t fight about religion, what can you fight about? It’s the kind of passage one does not often see in an Updike novel.
Ahmad does go hear Joryleen sing, hears a good sermon from a black preacher, and has a couple of run-ins with her boyfriend, Tylenol Jones (“His mother, having delivered a ten-pound infant, saw the name in a television commercial for painkiller and liked the sound of it”). But the main story concerns Ahmad’s being very willingly drawn into a terrorist plot cooked up by Charlie Chebab, one of the furniture store’s owner’s sons, and Rashid. It involves a truck filled with the same mix as McVeigh used, but twice as much, and headed for the Lincoln Tunnel during morning rush hour. One of the foreign technicians, explaining the mission to Ahmad says, “Even if outer sheath [of the tunnel] hold and keep out water, air system destroyed and all suffocate. Smoke, pressure. For you, no pain, not even panic moment. Instead, happiness of success and God’s warm welcome.”
As always Updike’s writing is painstakingly descriptive and beautiful. At it best his prose style keeps one nodding and thinking, yes, that’s what that is like, and it has always reminded me of the C.S. Lewis quote to the effect that an object has a certain poignancy just because it exists. Here is a passage describing Ahamd’s doubts about his faith that come when he confronts nature’s entropy:
The deaths of insects and worms, their bodies so quickly absorbed by earth and weeds and road tar, devilishly strive to tell Ahmad that his own death will be just as small and final. Walking to school, he has noticed a sign, a spiral traced on the pavement in luminous ichor, angelic slime from the body of some low creature, a worm or snail of which only this trace remains. Where was the creature going, its path spiraling inward to no purpose?
And later, confronted with a “sky cloudless but for a puffy scatter over Long Island, the ozone at the zenith so intense it seems a smooth-walled pit of blue fire,” Ahmad thinks, “This beauty . . . must mean something—a hint from Allah, a foreshadow of Paradise.”
The only problem with Updike’s style is that at times it is too rich, too detailed. The reader can lose the forest for the trees. And though plot has never been Updike’s strong suit, in this novel, character, plot, and setting gracefully balance. Human lives are at stake in this story—Updike has written a thriller here, but on his own terms—and the dénouement does not come through some ingenious James Bond solution but through character.
What is interesting is that in many ways, Ahmad is the most admirable person in the novel. He is more pure in his devotion to Allah than his imam, much less the furniture dealers and all the Moslems with whom he comes into contact, who take their religion for granted as a matter of culture. But he is admirable not just for his devotion to Allah but also to life itself. He has always refused to kill anything living, even bugs, and when he knows he is about to become a martyr he even tries, in the most moving passage in the book, to reconcile with his distracted mother:
“Mother, I love you.”
Touched, even stricken, sensing some abyss of need within him but able only to dart to the edge and away, “Well, of course, you sweet thing, and I do you. What is it the French say? Ça va sans dire. It goes without saying.”
He is blushing, stupidly, hating his own hot face. But he must get this out: “I mean, all those years, there I was obsessing about my father, and you were the one taking care of me.” Our mother is the Earth itself, from which we drew existence.
Her hands flit over herself to check that everything is in place; she looks at her watch again, and he can feel her mind flying, flying away. Her response makes him doubt that she heard what he said. “I know, dear—we all make mistakes in relationships.”
The only character that rivals Ahmad is Jack Levy. Although an unbeliever, he cares and strives to help people, and turns out to be very brave. Where Ahmad loves Allah fiercely, Levy loves this earthly life fiercely, yet has come to the place in his life where “In the world’s dark forest he had missed the right path [Ahmad is always striving to follow the Straight Path]. But was there any right path? Or was being alive in itself the mistake?” Levy, in a sense, is as pure in his skepticism, his earthiness, as Ahmad is in his belief.
This dichotomy, though brilliantly portrayed, is the main problem of the novel. There are smaller ones, such as the speechifying characters critiquing American consumerism, greed, shallowness, materialism, hollow educationalists (with a very funny devastatingly accurate analysis of soap operas by Beth Levy) which occur in internal monologues and in dialogues, but these are so enjoyable and right that one keeps reading, accepting the critique, all of which adds up in Ahmad’s favor and leaves one asking, is our society worth saving?
But no middle way is presented. It is an either/or we are presented with, not a both/and. Could we have in a contemporary American novel at least one character presented who is both religious and earthy, loving both God and humankind? It seems not now that Saul Bellow and Walker Percy are no long with us.
All in all, though, this is an exiting rich powerful books that partakes of a Dostoyevskian atmosphere in its portrayal of terrorism and a belief in a God that matters more than life itself.