Envisioning the life of an American suicide bomber

John Updike tries to imagine the mind of a US-grown, teenage terrorist.

One of the most difficult things for Americans to comprehend about terrorism is how young people could value their own lives so little that they would volunteer to blow themselves up. In his new novel, Terrorist, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Updike takes it upon himself to enlighten us by envisioning the life of someone who so far, thankfully, does not exist: an American suicide bomber.

It's an impressively difficult task, even if the results aren't always impressive. (Not that other novels haven't already delved into the appeal Islamic extremism can hold for Muslims living in the West, such as Monica Ali's memorable "Brick Lane.")

"Terrorist" is actually Updike's second book about a crisis of faith set in northern New Jersey. His 1997 novel, "In the Beauty of Lilies," opens at the very moment that the Rev. Clarence Wilmot loses all belief in God.

But there are some big differences between the two novels. "Lilies" is a sweeping tale spanning about 100 years in the life and religion of a family, while "Terrorist" takes place over the course of a summer. "Lilies" ranges far afield to Colorado and California, while almost all of "Terrorist" takes place in the rundown city of New Prospect.

Most strikingly, however, "Lilies" possesses complex characters and a healthy appreciation of nuance. From the first sentence of "Terrorist" it's clear that subtlety is not on the menu: "Devils, Ahmad thinks, These devils seek to take away my God."

Ahmad, the son of an Irish-American nurse's aide and an Egyptian student who walked out on them, is a bright young man who's about to graduate from high school. He's also devout to the point of alienating the one student who likes him. On the advice of his imam, who tells him that college would expose him to too much "bad" philosophy, he enrolls instead in truck-driving school. His guidance counselor, however, isn't willing to let Ahmad drop out of the future without a fight.

The novel asks whether Ahmad will choose to be American or Muslim, without offering any middle ground that would allow the boy to be both. (Neither option seems terribly appealing in Updike's portrayal: Ahmad can either be selfish, greedy, and godless, or a fanatic.) One major problem is that Updike never really seems to inhabit Ahmad, who acts and speaks like a visiting middle-aged professor from Yemen. The teenage vocational student actually uses the word "maieutic," which I, for one, have never heard bandied about wood shop.

Ahmad is poor, raised by a single mom with indifferent parenting skills, and he has no friends. He doesn't even feel comfortable around other Muslim teens. "The younger Arab-Americans, idle and watchful, have adapted the bulky running shoes, droopy oversize jeans, and hooded sweatshirts of black homeys. Ahmad, in his prim white shirt and his black jeans slim as two stovepipes would not fit in here; he lacks the language, the slang, and even the slant of Islam.... these blocks feel like an underworld he is timidly visiting, an outsider among outsiders."

American Muslims probably won't be lining up to shake Updike's hand: All the Muslim characters, with one exception, are employed in the terrorism business, and Ahmad's imam is portrayed as a sneering zealot.

But frankly, none of the characters in "Terrorist" exactly defy stereotype. There are two African-American teens: They work as a pimp and a hooker. Guidance counselor Jack Levy, the lone Jewish character, is both cheap and guilt-ridden. You get the idea.

But Updike reserves his real revulsion for the obese, especially women. Take Jack's wife, Beth, who is 100 pounds overweight. Her husband calls her "the whale" and obsesses about her "mountains of flesh" and body odor. Frankly, for the first half of the novel, Updike appears more concerned with the war on obesity than he does the war on terrorism. "America is paved solid with fat and tar, a coast-to-coast tarbaby where we all are stuck," Jack muses, in one of his better lines. Perhaps Updike should hook up with fitness guru Denise Austin and write a sequel: "Rabbit Runs for Better Health."

The tale perks up considerably once Ahmad gets a job driving a delivery truck for a furniture company owned by a Lebanese family. Although Ahmad rails against the rampant consumerism he and his mom have been shut out of, he enjoys his job delivering the things that people have bought. "[God] knows what it is to desire comfort, else He would not have made the next life so comfortable; there are carpets and couches in Paradise."

On their delivery routes, Ahmad's boss, Charlie, who dreams of directing commercials, instructs Ahmad in advertising and George Washington. Given the title of the book, it doesn't give much away to say that Charlie also has a little moonlighting in mind. Whether Ahmad will go through with the assignment is the central question of the plot. And if he doesn't, what will he have left to replace the beliefs around which he has built his life?

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.

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