The Good Soldier

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…

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