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Acclaimed on a regular basis for being among the best fiction
writers of his time, at age 74 John Updike brings forth a
protagonist starkly unlike his adolescent young males in many of
his 21 earlier novels. Ahmad, the son of an Egyptian graduate
student and an Irish American mother who dabbles in art,
experiences many of the awkward yearnings and self doubts of any
other 18-year-old American. Yet there is one grave exception: he is
a devout Muslim under the tutelage of a radical imam who runs an
obscure mosque in a converted dance studio above a shop in New
Prospect, New Jersey.

Updike successfully brings to life the fundamentalist Muslim view
of American glut and excess in such a chilling fashion that we
cannot fail to catch a glimpse of why our way of life is an
impenetrable mystery that appears evil to the purists of ancient
Middle Eastern thought. Ahmad views Americans with jaundiced scorn
and contempt. Women are temptresses to be feared and yet adored.
Aspirations to acquiring conspicuous belongings are spurned as
evil. Only through the glory of serving Allah can he fulfill his
life's purpose.

As Ahmad approaches graduation, he is seen as an underachiever by
his high school guidance counselor, Jack Levy, who belatedly
recognizes a spark that should have been kindled much earlier. Levy
tries to dissuade Ahmad from going to truck driver school and
instead enter a city college, but the imam has other plans for the
impressionable and sensitive youth. Ahmad is inexorably and
unknowingly pulled into becoming the primary player in a sinister
plot to be carried out on the anniversary of 9/11.

The novel is not without its traditional sexual nuances. We see
deep within the frustrated guidance counselor, Jack Levy, as he
struggles with a mature but unhappy marriage by reaching out to
Ahmad through his mother. Ahmad is tempted by a wild young female
fellow student into giving up his purity, and the agonies of a
moral dilemma are treated with pure Updike angst.

Updike treats the American government's oblivious disregard to
knowledge of the Muslim culture with frustration. We are introduced
to passages, written in Arabic and then translated, showing the
flowery, metaphorical and obscure writing endemic to the Arabic
language. FBI investigators listening to phone chatter, but
unschooled in the poetic linguistics used even when suspects are
speaking English, miss the significance of references to blinding
light and rushing waters as a direct clue to the growing plot. Even
Ahmad is sometimes puzzled by the murky descriptions, especially of
paradise. He questions his imam about the logic of how dark-eyed
virgins can still be virgins if so many heroes reach paradise in
their pursuit. This leads to an eye-opening alternative translation
of the Koran in that respect, yet it is so skillfully explained
away by the cleric that Ahmad is convinced that any
misinterpretations are inconsequential and that sitting at the
right hand of Allah surpasses all.

TERRORIST is a breakaway genre for Updike, who has never before
written a thriller, and yet thriller it is. We are drawn, page by
page, knowing a terrible act is about to take place even though
Ahmad in his innocence only belatedly discovers his role in the
unfolding drama.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 23, 2011

by John Updike

  • Publication Date: May 29, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345493915
  • ISBN-13: 9780345493910