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They hate us. Enormous numbers of people in the Muslim world think of the United States as a morally degenerate, all-powerful entity that must be destroyed. We get that part. What baffles so many of us, though, is the phenomenon of what we call the home-grown terrorists, young men who’ve been raised and nurtured in our land of abundance, who’ve enjoyed our democratic values, our freedom of expression, our sense of possibility. How ungrateful. Isn’t there an implied contract they’re dismissing, one that says that those who blossom under this tolerant sun should also respect it? That is the unanswerable question John Updike takes on in his latest novel, Terrorist. Ahmad Mulloy is a terrorist in the making. His Egyptian-born father abandoned the family long ago, and his Irish-American mother is far more interested in her artwork and dwindling sex life than in her sad and lonely child. With no real friends in his rough New Jersey high school, Ahmad is a lost soul — until he visits the local mosque. There he finds solace, acceptance, and the father figure he has longed for. Islam’s rules and limits are just what Ahmad needs. He begins visiting the imam, Shaikh Rashid, several times a week; reading the Koran; and looking down on his sexually free high school classmates with increasing scorn. TERRORIST IN THE MAKING Can’t anyone see where this is going? How is it that a threat so painfully obvious to the reader is completely missed by Ahmad’s mother, his high school counselor, and almost everyone else? It’s hard to believe in characters so clueless, especially since this book is set in our post-Sept. 11 world. Ahmad is being trained to drive trucks — doesn’t that raise any eyebrows? Updike does give us a vivid, devastating portrait of America’s spiritual and imaginative bankruptcy, our apathetic wallowing. One character is so grossly obese that she can barely get up out of her chair to answer the phone. One mother names her boy “Tylenol” just because she likes the sound of it. Ahmad’s sort-of friend, Joryleen, who drags him to church so he can hear her sing, doesn’t really have much respect for the churchgoing part of it. She just likes the chance to sing. Since this slovenly and sordid America is all he sees, it’s no wonder Ahmad rejects his homeland. A well-meaning high school counselor, Jack Levy, encourages Ahmad to go to college. But what Levy sees as a path to a better life, Ahmad sees as impossible. Besides, his imam warned him that college campuses are morally corrupt. Up until this point in the book, Updike has set up the clash of civilizations well. It’s when he tries to delve more deeply into Muslim faith and fanaticism that he falls short. We don’t get enough of a sense of what the Koran teaches, we don’t hear enough from the imam’s sermons, and, most important, we aren’t given a full-enough explanation of why Ahmad would be asked, or why he would so readily agree, to become a martyr for Islam. It’s not that the situation isn’t plausible, obviously, but we don’t really see how Ahmad takes those steps from prayerful boy to hate-filled terrorist. “Ahmad’s rickety feeling, of being supported over a gulf of bottomless space only by a scaffold of slender and tenuous supports, has returned. After a life of barely belonging, he is on the shaky verge of a radiant centrality,” Updike writes when Ahmad is asked to kill in the name of Islam. But doesn’t this American boy also have moments of doubt? Instead we get a one-dimensional stereotype of a budding Muslim fanatic. I expected more of Updike, this author who defined angst and the loss of youth in the character of Rabbit Angstrom and who wrote so gracefully and evocatively about a Christian pastor in In the Beauty of the Lilies. Updike remains a powerful writer. The book’s last 50 pages move especially fast as the reader hurries to see what will happen to Ahmad and his truck. But Updike has said he watched the collapse of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11 from Brooklyn Heights and the vision compelled him to try to understand the kind of hatred that could bring humans to this point. I’m not sure we’re any closer to understanding.
Debra Bruno can be contacted at [email protected].

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