For many years John Updike was one of my favourite authors. After being introduced to him through his best selling Couples I loved his ‘Bech’ books and the ‘Rabbit’ books and his short stories, particularly Pigeon Feathers. I came to idolise the suburban America that Updike so lovingly described.
Somewhere along the way I changed my allegiance to his wickedly funny and irreverent contemporary and friend of Updike Philip Roth whose Sabbath’s Theatre and Counter Life, to name just two, had me completely enthralled and rolling in the aisles.
On the evidence of his last two novels—first Villages and now Terrorist— John Updike’s best work is long past. While Terrorist is a topical novel—the question of home grown Muslim fundamentalism in America is a very current subject, the treatment of the subject leaves much to be desired unless you believe that every Muslim is a terrorist or a potential terrorist.
Updike tries, but not too hard, to get into the Muslim psyche and this is further evidence if evidence were needed that Americans have difficulty in understanding the Muslim mind. He describes the Muslim Diaspora in America filled with two-dimensional cardboard characters and every stereotype under the sun.
The story is of Ahmed, a pious Muslim boy, the son of an Egyptian father and a white mother who we first encounter as a High School senior in Central High in New Jersey. The description of his time at Central High with his friends and characters such as the black girl Joyleen and her boy friend Tylenol are the best passages of the book though they are not exactly profound.
Imagine having a name like Tylenol. His desire to be a trucker and start to earn a living as soon as he leaves school are also understandable. The trouble with the book starts after graduation and after he joins as a truck driver in an outfit called Excellency. That’s where the presumptions and the gaps and lack of motivation for becoming a terrorist become evident and the plot such as it is wears thin. Why a good pious Muslim boy should want to kill thousands of people (mostly white) particularly when his mother is also white is never adequately explained.
There is no immediate provocation, no cause, which is sufficient in its immediacy or magnitude, and unless you believe that every Muslim has cause enough to hate America to the extent of wanting to be a terrorist this does not wash. This lack of causation is particularly unfortunate because by not giving an immediate cause, Updike has fallen into the trap of relying on generalisation to give his story some sustenance. In which case the book is based on false premises.
That general reason about a dislike of ‘ungoldly America’ is enough to make a Muslim boy a terrorist is just not logical and is just not true. This lack of motivation in my view amounts to a lack of understanding and suffocates the book. The plot though simple is quite ingenious but is given away early in the book as it centres on the anniversary of September 11 and you know what was planned did not happen.
The book fails as a thriller and it fails as anything else. Updike does make the effort of quoting from the suras and the Koran chapter and verse and some of the quotations are really interesting and informative but the sum of the parts does not add up.
Updike is one of the most decorated American authors of the 20th century and his books have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the American Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award among others. He is a very talented author who has been writing for more than 50 years and fifty books have amply demonstrated his talent and versatility. But lately it would seem something is going horribly wrong. His latest two novels don’t come up to the exalted standards he has set for himself and as a regular books critic for others.