From the book jacket: The son of an
Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father who disappeared
when he was three, Ahmad turned to Islam at the age of eleven.
He feels his faith threatened by the materialistic, hedonistic
society he sees around him in the slumping factory town of New
Prospect, in northern New Jersey. Neither the world-weary,
depressed guidance counselor at Central High School, Jack Levy,
nor Ahmads mischievously seductive black classmate, Joryleen
Grant, succeeds in diverting the boy from what his religion
calls the Straight Path. When he finds employment in a furniture
store owned by a family of recently immigrated Lebanese, the
threads of a plot gather around him, with reverberations that
rouse the Department of Homeland Security. But to quote the
Quran: Of those who plot, God is the best.
Comment: John Updikes controversial twenty-second novel has garnered reviews both positive and negative. All the prepublication reviews were generally positive, with starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist ("deserves the label of masterpiece"). Those that come down against the book generally don't do so because of the subject matter but because they feel that the voice of Ahmad lacks credibility. As the Boston Herald puts it: "Updikes jerry-built, between-two-worlds son of an absent Egyptian father and artsy Irish-American mother, exposes himself as a wooden prop in a scarcely thrilling moral drama. Hes a ticking bomber-in-waiting from the get-go, though not a very believable one: If there are high schoolers today who walk around musing, as Ahmad does, about 'maieutic irony*,' I havent met them - and I dont believe Updike has either."
Ahmad and his teacher compare New York to the wealthy and prideful people of Ad, who were struck down in their prime (see sidebar); and Updike does not pull any punches as he views complacent, overindulgent, morally befuddled urban America through their eyes.
In addition to Ahmad's viewpoint, we also see through the eyes of an elderly Lebanese immigrant; that immigrant's American-born son; and a Yemeni imam, who all, in turn, interpret what they consider America to be based on their own experience - an experience set against the backdrop of the decaying remnants of industrial New Jersey, once a prospering area energized by immigrants.
*According to the OED, maieutic = pertaining to (intellectual) midwifery; i.e. to the Socratic process of helping a person to bring into full consciousness conceptions previously latent in his mind (from the Greek maieuesthai, to act as midwife).
This review was originally published in July 2006, and has been updated for the May 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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