John Updike is lauded as one of America’s greatest writers. He was a prolific creator of novels, short story collections, essays and literary criticism. He is one of only three people to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.
And I’m almost ashamed to say that Terrorist, written in 2006 and one of the last works before his death in 2009, is the first Updike novel I have read. But it won’t be the last.
Terrorist is eerily prophetic. It takes place a few years after the 9/11 atrocities invaded the minds of previously complacent Americans, but its characters and plot foretell with uncanny accuracy the constant jihadi threat facing Trump’s USA and the wider western world 10 years later.
Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy is a US-born teenager, whose Irish-American Catholic mother Teresa had a brief relationship with an Egyptian, Ahmad’s now long-gone father.
They live in the ironically named town of New Prospect, the New Jersey equivalent of Trump’s mid-West rust-belt, where once vibrant businesses decay, people struggle to find work and neighbourhoods have become increasingly multicultural.
Ahmad is in his last year of High School. He is bright but has no immediate ambition, other than to drive a truck. He knows that his God – Allah – will show him the right way forward. And, thanks to instruction of the Qur’an since he was 10, by Imam Shaikh Rashid at the local mosque, he knows not to succumb to the siren call of Joryleen, a sexually aware black girl in his class at school. As much as he is tempted.
Jack Levy is a world-weary careers advisor, who sees the potential in Ahmad. Jack’s wife Beth is fat and has become lazy, and he embarks on an ill-fated affair with Ahmad’s promiscuous mother.
There is almost an overload of religious education in the first third of the book. We read swathes of the Qur’an with Ahmad and see how Shaikh Rashid begins to foment Ahmad’s radicalisation; Jack is a Jew, but struggles with his own faith and guilt; Teresa is clearly a somewhat lapsed Catholic.
At the age of forty, she has parted from a number of men, and how many would she want back? With each break, it seems to her in retrospect, she returned to her single life with a fresh forthrightness and energy, like facing a blank, taut, primed canvas after some days away from the easel.
As the plot develops and the characters’ lives intertwine, Updike’s powerful prose entraps you, like a fly in an arachnid’s web.
“What is freedom?”, Shaikh Rashid asks, his eyes opening and breaking the skin of his trance, “As long as we are in our bodies, we are slaves to our bodies and our necessities. How I envy you, dear boy. Compared with you, I am old, and it is to the young that the greatest glory of battle belongs. To sacrifice one’s life,” he continues, as his eyelids half shut, so just a wet gray glitter shows, “before it becomes a tattered, exhausted thing. What an endless joy that would be.”
Terrorist eases into being a conventional, taut thriller, but thanks to the author’s mastery of language and storytelling, it is so much more.
And it has also made me fear that there is no obvious solution to the threat of constant attack by so-called radical Islamists, who see death and destruction of Western infidels as the only Straight Path to follow in life.