A way out of the darkness
By John Updike
Hamish Hamilton pound;17.99
Ahmad is an A-grade 18-year-old American student, though he doesn't consider himself American. In fact, although he is half Egyptian, half Irish, he doesn't consider himself to be of either of those heritages either. But born and bred in a grotty, post-industrial town in New Jersey, he has embraced Allah since the age of 11.
Tutored by an imam whose hatred of the infidel state and all its inhabitants is seductively drilled into him alongside Qur'anic teachings, the tall, handsome boy has become a priggish, prudish automaton who sticks out at his black, urban high school like a tightly bandaged sore thumb.
When he tells the object of his repressed desires, in a moment of sensuousness, "I am a good Muslim, in a world that mocks faith," you get the message loud and clear: this boy doesn't need to worry about condoms.
No wonder that, out of place at home with a sexually omnivorous single mother as well as at school with highly sexualised, aggressive classmates, he feels alienated. So much so, in fact, that he renounces the society around him, declaring himself to be at the service of Allah. The shifty imam takes him at his word, pushing him to the brink of the ultimate act of servitude and devotion. Instead of encouraging him to further his studies at university, he arranges for him to get a truck driver's licence, ostensibly to deliver furniture for a shady Lebanese family outfit.
Ahmad is someone clearly in need of a number of things: a father figure, first sex and an identity. While he gets bargain basement versions of the first two, it's the third that is the most problematic to hold onto.
In Terrorist, John Updike has waded into unfamiliar and inevitably shark-infested waters: religion, radical Islam, race, prejudice. Heady, edgy, very of-the-moment stuff, but at the end of it, you wish he'd stuck to the material he is good at and is at home with: the physical and metaphysical angst of surburban, middle-class America.
Instead, we get a view of a dystopic, irredeemably ugly world, seen through a distinctly misanthropic lens. Black people are described in terms that are, frankly, racist caricatures. The black preacher at the church service that Ahmad reluctantly attends at the invitation of his friend Joryleen delivers a mad stream-of-consciousness sermon, with fundamentalist digressions ("they want to teach our innocent children evolution in all the public schools!").
Black people in this book have big nostrils, big rear-ends, big voices that spout big inanities or else threats. Joryleen's thuggish boyfriend-cum-pimp is called Tylenol (the name of a popular analgesic in the US) because his mother saw an advert for it on the television when she was pregnant. Women are wobblingly fat, ranging from the ripe plumpness of Joryleen to the morbid obesity of poor Beth, wife of Ahmad's school guidance counsellor Jack Levy. And Levy himself, something of a saviour in the climax of the book, is a Jewish schlemiel, a self-pitying loser whose hunger for love accentuates his loserdom.
But perhaps the biggest loser of all in this sometimes achingly beautifully written, dyspeptic rant is America itself: a land of individuals who are clinging to each other in either their common God or their shared hatred of others. No one is spared Updike's derision, uttered through various characters' narratives. And no American reality is left unturned: the hegemony of the automobile; the demise of horse chestnut trees; the paucity of affordable housing; yuppies who ruin older neighbourhoods with their brightly painted porches; fattening fast food. The American people, it is no surprise to hear, are so absorbed in their own greedy narratives that they have lost sight of everybody else. Beth Levy is a personification of this America: a simple-minded librarian who has gorged on so many cookies while watching daytime soaps that her blubber rolls over either side of her chair. Her gratification and comfort supercede everything else.
These are the memorably unattractive characters who people the novel and whose portrayals stand in stark contrast to that of Ahmad, the desperately earnest, willing shaheedi (martyr). Given the morally repulsive, ethically disappointing realities of life in his ironically named hometown of New Prospect, of course he is happy to give up this world for Paradise. I would be, too.
Furthermore, if you were the fictitious product of a great American writer who creates dialogue in which the Secretary for Homeland Security asks:
"Those people out there... Why do they hate us? What's to hate?" to which Beth's sister, his under-secretary, replies: "They hate the light, like cockroaches, like bats. The light shone in darkness and the darkness comprehended it not", wouldn't you take a chance on a better world too?