BookBrowse Reviews Terrorist by John Updike

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Terrorist

by John Updike

Terrorist by John Updike X
Terrorist by John Updike
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2006, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2007, 320 pages

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A recipe for terrorism - Mullahs, botched CIA gambits, race and class shame, and half-baked plots,

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 Ahmad’s 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 Qur’an: Of those who plot, God is the best.

Comment: John Updike’s 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: "Updike’s 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. He’s 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 haven’t met them - and I don’t 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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