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Terrorist, John Updike

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There are people in this world who want to die in the process of killing their fellow men: not soldiers on a battlefield pointing a gun in their direction, but men, women, and children, going about their lives as well as they can, probably trying to do so in such a way that does not harm others. Why would someone want to kill arbitrary people and to die in the process? How does someone develop the kind of mindset that brings him to the conclusion? Are such people hopelessly lost? These are all questions that people all over the world, and particularly in America, are asking themselves. These are also the questions that John Updike addresses in his latest novel.

Terrorist is the story of a young man, born and raised in the United States, not far from New York. We meet him in his final year of high school and follow him through graduation, summer, and into the fall. Ahmad Mulloy is the product of a marriage perhaps two decades earlier between two students at the New Prospect campus of the State University of New Jersey, an Egyptian exchange student, Omar Ashmawy and Irish-American art student Teresa Mulloy. Ashmawy left his wife and three-year-old son, unable to make more than a menial living despite his U.S. citizenship that followed marriage. Ahmad was supported by his mother became a nurse's aid and the absence of his father was replaced by a romanticized notion of what his father must have been.

Despite his good grades in school, Ahmad switches to a vocational education track under the advice not of his guidance counselor Jack Levy (who in fact does not meet Ahmad until near graduation) but of his “teacher,” Shaikh Rashid, the imam at a small mosque nearby. Ahmad does his best to remain separate from the “devils” around him, including Joryleen Grant and her boyfriend Tylenol Jones, taking solace instead in the life of an ardent Muslim and the study of the Qur'an.

Rather than pursuing education, Ahmad works to receive a commercial driver's license after high school and takes a delivery job with a furniture store run by a Lebanese family, the Chehabs. Habib Chehab's son “informally” called Charlie has been making the deliveries, but a new driver is needed to allow Charlie to take on a more significant role in the business office. Thus begins Ahmad's work and establishment of the connections that will lead him to a position we have no reason to believe he seriously imagined for himself.

Updike has not produced a psychological analysis of the mind of a terrorist. What he has done is created a story and characters that allow us to see the experience of a young man disadvantaged by the lack of a father, eager to please paternal figures and the world around him. We are given a view of the people who influence this young man, for good and for bad; we see them for what they are in their hopes, duty, impotence, frustration, desperation, and even occasionally heroism. None is perfect, but all are human. In this, there is a certain timeless truth in the telling of our condition.

But Terrorist is not a timeless story: it is one of a world brought closer together through technology and the openness of American society, struggling to find balance at the opening of the twenty-first century. It is a period story, one that will be easily identified as coming from 2006 and one that readers in 2036 might well need to be prepared to understand.

The view isn't pretty and it isn't one that will be accepted as realistic by suburbanites sitting cozily in their overstuffed lounge chairs parked in a corner room of their McMansions at the end of their cul-de-sacs. My advice to such readers is to get into the city, to mingle among the inner cities with their disenchanted native-born Americans and the fear-inspiring immigrants, to learn their concerns, and to hear them talk about their spirituality and identity in a land where they see only greed and focus on the self.

Taking a hard and honest look will reveal that among us there are indeed people who see only their brothers and devils who seek to take away their God. Updike has done us a great service in this opportunity to see ourselves through the eyes of another.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-09-05 01:17 PM

fear-inspiring immigrants...

Posted by donetrawk at 2006-09-06 12:13 PM
Nice phrase, I might steal that one.
Along these lines, I recommend the film Paradise Now, if you haven't seen it.
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