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The Good Soldier

Terrorist

by John Updike
Knopf, 310 pp., $24.95

First met in the novel when he is eighteen, on the verge of his high school graduation, Ahmad is a very Updikean adolescent: painfully polite, self-conscious, intelligent, and a world-class noticer, someone who’s barely capable of crossing the street or setting eyes on another human being without inventorizing his perceptions in a flight of rapt microscopy. His theology, too, seems distinctively Updikean. Ahmad’s god is a surprisingly personal deity, variously conceived by him as his Siamese twin, his absent father, and the elder brother he never had, a living presence as intimately close to him as the throbbing vein in his neck.

From the first sentence of the book, he thinks of his faith as imperiled, a tender and vulnerable plant sustained against the odds by the force of his own will. He guesses that Shaikh Rashid, his mentor, has lost his faith, and this suspicion fortifies him in his determination to cling to Allah, his nearest and dearest relation. These ideas of a bosom-buddy god and of belief as psychodrama are perhaps more Christian, and, specifically, Protestant, than conventionally Islamic, but Ahmad is a convert, and his odd, hybrid religion may well reflect what can happen to Islam when it takes root in Christianized American soil. The important thing is that Updike makes us believe in his belief.

Ahmad’s destiny is made plain by the title of the book. In the first chapter he tells Jack Levy, the nonpracticing Jew who is his high school guidance counselor, that Shaikh Rashid has advised him against going to college and set him on the “voke” track so that he can learn to be a truck driver. Lest one miss the implications of this career, Levy hammers them home:

Drive a truck? What kind of truck? There are trucks and trucks. You’re only eighteen; I happen to know you can’t get a license for a tractor rig or tank truck or even a school bus for three more years. The exam for the license, a CDL—that’s commercial driver’s license—is tough. Until you’re twenty-one you can’t drive out of state. You can’t carry hazardous materials.

A few pages earlier, Levy, glooming over the unlovely dawn view of his hometown, has remarked to his wife, “This whole neighborhood could do with a good bomb.” Long before Ahmad himself knows his fate, the reader is aware that, by the end of the book, he’s going to be at the wheel of a truck bomb. This is strange terrain for Updike, whose work to date has been one long celebration of free will in contemporary America. No such freedom for Ahmad: like a character in a Dreiser novel, he’s in the hands of a resolute determinist, and the fuse lit by the title will crackle through the story to its inevitable destination: a bend in the Lincoln Tunnel, a truck loaded with four thousand kilos of ammonium nitrate, and Ahmad’s forefinger poised over a red ignition button.

Its burning-fuse plot makes this the most mechanically compelling novel that Updike has yet written, and a lot of readers are going to be kept awake into the small hours as they turn its pages. With a credible hero, a glowingly realized urban setting, and the exhilarating narrative speed of a thriller, Terrorist offers so many readerly pleasures that its deep, structural implausibilities may easily be overlooked.

Twenty years ago this year, Updike published Roger’s Version, which in several ways eerily foreshadows Terrorist. One passage in particular comes to mind, in which the young zealot (and early proponent of intelligent design), Dale Kohler, is arguing with the complacent and cynical theologian, Roger Lambert. Kohler speaks first:

The Devil is doubt. He’s what makes us reject the gifts God gives us, he makes us spurn the life we’ve been given….”

Funny,” I said. “I would have said, looking at recent history and, for that matter, at some of our present-day ayatollahs and Führers, the opposite. The Devil is the absence of doubt. He’s what pushes people into suicide bombings, into setting up extermination camps. Doubt may give your dinner a funny taste, but it’s faith that goes out and kills.”

Faith Kills” might be an epigraph for Terrorist. Ahmad Mulloy’s submission to the Straight Path and the teaching of his shady imam lead him, in Updike’s heavily loaded story, on an express route to the Lincoln Tunnel as if faith alone were sufficient to turn this likable, deferential, and pliant young man into a willing mass murderer.

From the start, Ahmad mouths Islamist stock-in-trade generalities: Washington, D.C., is run by scheming Jews; the Kuffar (unbelievers) who surround him at his school are “devils,” “unclean,” “slaves to images”; those who are Christians worship a dead god; America is doing evil things in the Middle East. But one senses no real heat behind these merely ritual observations, which are flatly contradicted whenever Ahmad turns his hyper-responsive Updikean eye on the world. Here, for instance, he’s appraising his black classmate Joryleen Grant, whose church he will later visit to listen to her sing:

There is an endearing self-confidence in how compactly her brown roundnesses fill her clothes, which today are patched and sequinned jeans, worn pale where she sits, and a reddish-ribbed shorty top both lower and higher than it should be. Blue plastic barrettes pull her glistening hair back as straight as it will go; the plump edge of her right ear holds along its crimp a row of little silver rings. She sings in assembly programs, songs of Jesus or sexual longing, both topics abhorrent to Ahmad. Yet he is pleased that she notices him, coming up to him now and then like a tongue testing a sensitive tooth.

No writer alive renders American surfaces with such affection as Updike, whose prose style verbally caresses everything on which it alights. In his work, characters who earn bad grades for their morals, like Rabbit Angstrom, are invariably redeemed by sharing their creator’s exceptional powers of benevolent observation. So it is with Ahmad Mulloy, a teenage John Updike with a prayer mat, who cannot help but love the America whose enemy he must become.

At one point Shaikh Rashid asks him, “Did you not discover that the world, in its American portion, emits a stench of waste and greed, of sensuality and futility, of the despair and lassitude that come with ignorance of the inspired wisdom of the Prophet?” To which Ahmad replies, “This isn’t the fanciest part of the planet, I guess, and it has its share of losers, but I enjoyed being out in it, really. People are pretty nice, mostly.” Moments later, he agrees to drive the suicide truck. “I will die…if it is the will of God.”

In other words, Updike insists that Ahmad is driven not by furious ideology but by innocence, conformity to the Straight Path, natural good manners, and the habit of obedience to his teacher. He is the unquestioning, dutiful soldier, ready to kill on order: his not to make reply, his not to reason why, his but to do and die. If that was good enough for the hapless cannon fodder of Tennyson’s Light Brigade, why shouldn’t it work for a humble Pfc. in the Arab-American mujahideen?

Updike forcibly denies Ahmad access to the full rhetoric of radical Islamism—that highly combustible mixture of Salafist zealotry, violent, Franz Fanon–like anticolonialism, and the apocalyptic vision of the decline of the West, which owes a large debt to such European authors as Toynbee and Spengler. What is so odd about Terrorist is that nobody in the book seems to take the Islamist case all that seriously. Though Shaikh Rashid pays lip service to the notion of Western degeneracy, he is far more concerned with teasing out ambiguities and ironies in the suras of the Qur’an like an old-fashioned New Critic. Ahmad’s immediate boss at Excellency Furnishings, the breezy Lebanese-American named Charlie Chehab, who manages the bomb plot and may be a CIA agent provocateur, likens Osama bin Laden to George Washington and compares the jihadists to the American revolutionaries of 1776, but his remarks come across as little more than conversational pleasantries. Nowhere is Ahmad, or the reader, exposed to the kind of intense political rage that has spurred terrorist attacks in the real world. The plotters go about their business as unemotionally as if they were planning a bank heist—but bank heists have an obvious motive, while the bomb in the Lincoln Tunnel appears to be motivated by little more than vague disgruntlement with the American way of life and, in Ahmad’s case, a willingness to go against the grain of his own character in order to please his masters and give satisfaction to a god in whom he insecurely believes.

It’s hard to be sure whether this conspicuous absence of ideological passion in the novel is there by default or by design. It may be that the politics of rage lie outside Updike’s territory and he was reluctant to involve himself in them. Or perhaps, by giving Ahmad the barest minimum of motivation, he means to suggest that ordinary piety can be rerouted into vengeful theocratic warfare with truly terrifying ease. Whatever his intention, Terrorist leaves one with the impression that Islam—by contrast with Christianity, which is warmly celebrated in a terrific extended passage when Ahmad visits Joryleen’s church—is a uniquely dangerous religion, and that any inquiring and impressionable youngster who sets foot in a mosque is all too likely to end up bent on atrocity.

In the church scene, the pastor’s exuberant (and pitch-perfect) sermon is about Moses, “who led the chosen people out of slavery and yet was himself denied admission to the Promised Land.”

Faith,” the preacher is proclaiming in a voice roughened by oratory, granular like coffee overloaded with sugar. “They didn’t have faith. That is why they were an evil congregation. That is why the Israelites were visited by pestilence and shame and defeat in battle….”

The preacher’s wrong, of course: Ahmad has faith, and, from the very beginning of the book, we know to what evil it will lead him. His trouble is that, out of filial loyalty to his runaway Egyptian father, he has inadvertently chosen the wrong god. It could happen to anyone.

If Ahmad’s foreordained path toward the Lincoln Tunnel provides the strong narrative spine of the book, much of the flesh is supplied by scenes, reminiscent of the encounters between Dale Kohler and Roger Lambert in Roger’s Version, that pit Ahmad’s naive credulity against the world-weary skepticism of his high school counselor, Jack Levy. These exchanges are oddly written, more in the style of formal Socratic dialogues than the realistic speech of a conventional novel. In them, Faith speaks to Doubt, Doubt back to Faith, and their stiltedness is perhaps part of their essential point, as if Updike were summoning the language of Pilgrim’s Progress or a medieval morality play.

Levy, married to an obese wife—who in herself embodies the excess, waste, and greed of American life as it is seen by the wire-thin Shaikh Rashid—is, at sixty-three, fast becoming indifferent to the prospect of his own death:

Jack Levy’s sole remaining task is to die and thus contribute a little space, a little breathing room, to this overburdened planet. The task hangs in the air just above his insomniac face like a cobweb with a motionless spider in the center.

So Levy faces the atheist’s oblivion, Ahmad the sensual paradise of the Islamist martyr. Yet Levy, decent teacher that he is, is firmly on the side of life, for his students if not himself. Thus conjoined by fate with Ahmad (and also, for this is an Updike novel, with Ahmad’s forty-something mother, Terry, via her “perfect, gorgeous cunt”), Levy is destined to share the ride to the tunnel so that there can be a protracted wordy showdown between bluff school counseling and deluded juvenile religious belief.

But an inordinate amount of novelistic hard labor is required to get the pair together in the truck, en route for the big bang that will open the tunnel to the Hudson River. Not only must Ahmad be as tractable as soft putty in the hands of his imam and his boss, but Updike has to wrench plausible reality beyond recognizable shape in order to achieve his necessary end. Improbable coincidence follows on the heels of improbable coincidence. For the sake of the plot, it just so happens that Levy’s sister-in-law is the personal assistant to the secretary of homeland security, a burly Pennsylvanian ringer for Tom Ridge. It just so happens that when Charlie Chehab finds a whore for Ahmad, so that he can lose his virginity before he quits this world, she turns out to be his old school flame, Joryleen. It just so happens that the considerable city of New Prospect has a single entry ramp onto Interstate 80, so that Jack Levy can intercept the truck bomb when it is conveniently stopped at a red light (and, astonishingly, ever-polite Ahmad will open the passenger door and let him in). Again and again, one’s made aware of the novelist forcing the characters and the world around them to conform to his will. In a novel suffused with fear of religious totalitarianism, it’s unnerving to find Updike himself playing the role of a tyrannical god.

Between New Prospect and the tunnel, the stop-go rush-hour traffic moves slowly enough to allow Ahmad and Levy a last leisurely debate. The red button is between their seats, the minutes are ticking down, but they speak as if they were in a not-too-interesting social studies class:

Levy says, “I can’t believe you’re seriously intending to kill hundreds of innocent people.”

Who says unbelief is innocent? Unbelievers say that. God says, in the Qur’an, Be ruthless to unbelievers. Burn them, crush them, because they have forgotten God. They think to be themselves is sufficient. They love this present life more than the next.”

So kill them now. That seems pretty severe.”

It would to you, of course. You are a lapsed Jew, I believe. You believe nothing. In the third sura of the Qur’an it says that not all the gold in the world can ransom those who once believed and now disbelieve, and that God will never accept their repentance.”

Mr. Levy sighs. Ahmad can hear moisture, little droplets of fear, rattle in his breath. “Yeah, well, there’s a lot of repulsive and ridiculous stuff in the Torah, too….The priests try to control people through fear….”

As elsewhere in the novel, Updike embeds this weirdly unreal talk in a mass of precise contingent details. The stalled traffic, the passing landscape, the tiles of the tunnel are conjured with such grace that the reader’s eye is seduced even as his ear rebels. Updike’s enormous gift for painterly realism (the “silvery cruciform glint” of a plane “escaping” Newark International Airport, for instance) goes a long way toward compensating for the inherent improbability of much of this story.

Deep beneath the Hudson, not far short of the bend where Ahmad plans to detonate his bomb, the conversation hits its high point of unlikeliness:

Ahmad turns and asks Jack Levy, “Have you ever, in your studies, read the Egyptian poet and political philosopher Sayyid Qutub? He came to the United States fifty years ago and was struck by the racial discrimination and the open wantonness between the sexes. He concluded that no people is more distant than the American people from God and piety. But the concept of jahiliyya, meaning the state of ignorance that existed before Mohammed, extends also to worldly Muslims and makes them legitimate targets for assassination.”

Sounds sensible. I’ll assign him as optional reading, if I live. I’ve signed up to teach a course in civics this semester. I’m sick of sitting in that old equipment-closet all day trying to talk surly sociopaths out of dropping out. Let ‘em drop out, is my new philosophy.”

Sir, I regret to say you will not live. In a few minutes I am going to see the face of God. My heart overflows with the expectation.”

Qutb’s Milestones, the primary sourcebook of modern jihad, is here reduced to milk-and-water…optional reading, indeed. I find it wholly incredible that a suicide bomber could speak of Qutb in such mild and dispassionate terms. By making Ahmad do so, Updike robs him of the last surviving shred of Islamist conviction and makes his presence in the truck seem little short of insane. One shouldn’t, of course, belabor fiction with journalism and sociology, but the life stories of real suicide bombers make it plain that they were possessed by an intoxicating and deadly idea, first formulated by Qutb, which led them to attack the West in a spirit of single-minded passionate ferocity. Ahmad is not possessed by that idea: in his detached and garbled version, it’s a harmless observation that verges on the fatuous.

As the truck crawls through the tunnel, the car immediately ahead is a bronze Volvo station wagon, from whose rear window two small black children, a boy and a girl, try to engage Ahmad’s attention. If he’s successful in his mission, he’ll blow these kids to bits. With the bend—the weakest structural part of the tunnel—approaching, Ahmad, finger on the button, sinks into theological reverie:

In the fifty-sixth sura, the Prophet speaks of the moment when the soul of a dying man shall come up into his throat. That moment is here…. Yet in the same sura, “The Event,” God asks, We created you: will you not credit us? Behold the semen you discharge: did you create it, or We?God does not want to destroy: it was He who made the world.

The pattern of the wall tiles and of the exhaust-darkened tiles of the ceiling—countless receding repetitions of squares like giant graph paper rolled into a third dimension—explodes outward in Ahmad’s mind’s eye in the gigantic fiat of Creation, one concentric wave after another, each pushing the other farther and farther out from the initial point of nothingness, God having willed the transition from non-being to being. This was the will of the Benificent, the Merciful, ar-Rahman and ar-Rahm, the Living, the Patient, the Generous, the Perfect, the Light, the Guide. He does not want us to desecrate His creation by willing death. He wills life.

Ahmad returns his right hand to the steering wheel….

It is typical of this perplexing novel that the passage is both satisfying in its unforced eloquence (the lovely conceit of tunnel—roll of graph paper—fiat of Creation) and at the same time a bathetic false epiphany. For almost every sentence written by Updike from Ahmad’s point of view has assured us that he is far too fond of the world and of his own future in it to be a dedicated suicide bomber, and the discovery that his god is a god of love not hate is something he and we really knew all along. As for jihadist rage and disgust for America and all its workings, he can hardly lose what was never properly his in the first place.

Terrorist does so many things so well—is rich in scenes, or at least sights, of arresting brilliance, and sucks the reader into a gripping and suspenseful story—that it may seem churlish to harp on the one thing it does badly, which is to imaginatively comprehend the roots and character of Islamist jihad against the West. Because Updike shrinks from giving any real credence to the ideology that drives his plot (in both senses of that word), the book becomes a temporarily enthralling, but ultimately empty, shaggy dog story. If only the novelist had spent more time dreaming himself into the paranoid and angry world of Qutb and his followers, and given Ahmad Mulloy sufficient intellectual and emotional wherewithal to justify his adherence to the crooked path of righteous violence, Terrorist might have stood among Updike’s best work. As it is, it conducts an energetic, entertaining, but disappointingly unconsummated flirtation with its important subject.

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