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Terrorist    by John Updike order for
by John Updike
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2006)

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* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

John Updike is, of course, one of America's most respected literary figures, and he has for half a century shared with readers his singularly perceptive critiques of American society and culture. Through the lives of Rabbit Angstrom (the 20th century Everyman who somehow makes it through four decades of changes), Henry Bech (the Jewish writer who seems to be Updike's most poignant and ironic alter-ego), and the many other characters in his novels and short stories, Updike has consistently entertained and challenged readers. Now, in the most disturbing and unusual novel of Updike's long career, the seventy-four year old icon of American literature introduces readers to two important new characters: eighteen-year old Ahmad Mulloy and sixty-three year old Jack Levy.

Ahmad is finishing up his senior year at Central High School in New Prospect, New Jersey. As the son of an Irish-American (Catholic) mother and an Egyptian (Muslim) father (who has long ago departed the family), Ahmad - like many of Updike's other adolescent characters in past works - is struggling to find himself and is desperate to make decisions about his future. Profoundly committed to his father's religion (although sometimes seemingly uncomfortable in his deference to Shaikh Rashid, the imam at the West Main Street mosque) and unbearably distracted by the temptations of a profane secular society in which he lives each day, Ahmad surprises everyone - especially Jack Levy, his guidance counselor at school - by deciding upon a future career as a truck driver.

Jack Levy, of course, had spoken with many students through the years about their futures beyond high school, but Ahmad's abruptly made vocational decision surprises the guidance counselor and, for reasons he cannot quite put his finger on, Levy finds himself uncomfortable with Ahmad's fervent commitment to a career that seems quite incompatible with the young man's intellectual potential. Normally cynical about the majority of the students at Central, Levy uncharacteristically takes a special interest in Ahmad. And soon, because of a house-visit to Ahmad and his mother, Levy - the unbelieving Jew and unhappy husband to a Lutheran wife - finds himself more intimately involved emotionally and spiritually in the Mulloys' lives than he would have previously imagined possible.

What follows is Ahmad's ruthless search for spiritual, emotional, and social identity in what he sees as a darkened, infernal world of confusion and decay. Along the way, Ahmad will find himself in absolute and irreversible conflict with Levy and the older man's 'old covenant' variations on humanism and compassion. Ultimately, with Levy as the Virgilian guide to Ahmad as the the passionate pilgrim in Updike's nightmarish and terrifying showdown between faith and reason, Ahmad will need to choose: Either he can irrationally hope for paradise through faith and sacrifice, or he can look for a different, more reasonable way out of the wilderness.

Terrorist is Updike's contemporary morality play in which readers must consider all the options, ramifications, and perils of a post-modern form of Pascal's wager. Electrifying and frightening, Terrorist shows us - in the very clear examples of Ahmad Mulloy and Jack Levy - the decisions and problems we must all confront as we grapple with the negative and positive implications of what appears to be religious faith in a post-9/11 world. Yes, many other writers have recently tackled the post-9/11 themes; however, no one has done it more effectively and more disturbingly than John Updike in Terrorist. If you are going to read only one book this year, this is the one.

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