Will Byrnes's Reviews > Terrorist

Terrorist by John Updike
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Oct 04, 08

bookshelves: terrorism, religion-and-sprituality
Read in February, 2007

** spoiler alert ** Will he or won’t he? In this post-9/11 coming of age tale, Ahmad Mulloy-Ashmawy is a high school senior convinced that the culture in which he lives is completely unclean. Child of an Irish-American mother and a long-gone Egyptian father, he identifies with his Arabic side. By his own choice he began Islamic studies at age 11. Under the tutelage of a fundamentalist imam, he has dedicated his life to Islam, scorning the temptations of the flesh. Or is it a mask for his own insecurities? While expounding on the closeness he feels to Allah, questions still creep in. He experiences the desires that we all do.

Jake is a 60ish guidance counselor at Ahmad’s school. He sees that Ahmad has intellectual capacity and encourages him to consider college, but the imam has convinced Ahmad to take up truck-driving instead, placing him with a Lebanese run furniture company. Ahmad is befriended there by Charlie, who both challenges Ahmad’s asceticism and encourages its excesses. He even goes so far as to hire for Ahmad Joryleen Grant, a girl Ahmad had been friends with at school. Charlie leads Ahmad into a dangerous plot.

Subsidiary characters include the homeland security secretary, his assistant, her sister, who happens to be Jack’s wife, and Ahmad’s mother, a part-time artist who has never been able to make permanent any of her many relationships.

What do you believe in? What is worth dying for? Is that all there is? Updike’s world is a grimy one, very real-seeming, a dark place in which the innocent, or near-innocent are led into harms way by the unscrupulous, a world in which no bright future awaits, a world that is rank with hypocrisy. Ahmad is a contemporary Holden Caulfield unprepared to accept the world as it is and repulsed by its omnipresent dark sides. Will he mature fast enough to head off his own destruction?

Fatherhood also plays a significant role here. Ahmad’s father abandoned him when he was three. He sought a replacement in Shaikh Rashid, with Mom’s ok, and now Jack seeks to offer him parental-type guidance.

Updike captures the rage of the outsider here. It is easy to see how one could view today’s world as corrupt and less than holy, and from there how large a step is it to want to see that society harmed? Add in the anti-rational forces of religion and adolescence and the result is potent and dangerous. The final scene is a nail-biter. Will he or won’t he?

There are other issues not addressed here, and that informs how Updike views the east-west conflict. The focus is almost entirely on the unclean nature of western culture, with only passing mention being made of US actions in the world. Osama did not do his thing because we are pigs. He did it because we occupied Saudi Arabia, and blindly support anything Israel wants. Thus Updike, with this choice of focus, defines the conflict as being values based and having nothing to do with actions. In the absence of significant attacks on his person or religion spelled out in the story it is unclear how Ahmad could shift from a reasonable anger to a homicidal rage.

Is Ahmad better off for having something to believe in than Jack who was raised an atheist? Charlie’s religion appears to be the American Dream. Is Joryleen allowing herself to be used by the thuggish Tylenol more or less manipulated than Ahmad is by the Shaikh? Can the Homeland Security head really be such a bumpkin? One would never suspect that our government is staging a full-court press against the constitution.
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