Terroristby John Updike
The terrorist of John Updike’s title is eighteen-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, the son of an Irish American mother and an Egyptian father who disappeared when he was three. Devoted to Allah and to the Qur’an as expounded by the imam of his neighborhood mosque, Ahmad feels his faith threatened by the materialistic, hedonistic society he sees around him in the slumping New Jersey factory town of New Prospect. Neither Jack Levy, his life-weary guidance counselor at Central High, nor Joryleen Grant, his seductive black classmate, succeeds in diverting Ahmad from what the Qur’an calls the Straight Path. Now driving a truck for a local Lebanese furniture store—a job arranged through his imam—Ahmad thinks he has discovered God’s purpose for him. But to quote the Qur’an: Of those who plot, God is the best.
The New York Times
“A chilling tale that is perhaps the most essential novel to emerge from September 11.”—People (Critic’s Choice)
“Riveting . . . emotionally daring . . . Updike’s ability to get inside the mind of his Ahmad . . . is what renders the novel credible and sometimes wrenching in its authenticity.”—The Boston Globe
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- Random House
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 2 MB
Read an Excerpt
Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, What else is there to see? Boys strut and saunter along and look dead-eyed, indicating with their edgy killer gestures and careless scornful laughs that this world is all there is—a noisy varnished hall lined with metal lockers and having at its end a blank wall desecrated by graffiti and roller-painted over so often it feels to be coming closer by millimeters.
The teachers, weak Christians and nonobservant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief. They are paid to say these things, by the city of New Prospect and the state of New Jersey. They lack true faith; they are not on the Straight Path; they are unclean. Ahmad and the two thousand other students can see them scuttling after school into their cars on the crackling, trash-speckled parking lot like pale crabs or dark ones restored to their shells, and they are men and women like any others, full of lust and fear and infatuation with things that can be bought. Infidels, they think safety lies in accumulation of the things of this world, and in the corrupting diversions of the television set. They are slaves to images, false ones of happiness and affluence. But even true images are sinful imitations of God, who can alone create. Relief at escaping their students unscathed for another day makes the teachers’ chatter of farewell in the halls and on the parking lot too loud, like the rising excitement of drunks. The teachers revel when they are away from the school. Some have the pink lids and bad breaths and puffy bodies of those who habitually drink too much. Some get divorces; some live with others unmarried. Their lives away from the school are disorderly and wanton and self-indulgent. They are paid to instill virtue and democratic values by the state government down in Trenton, and that Satanic government farther down, in Washington, but the values they believe in are
Godless: biology and chemistry and physics. On the facts and formulas of these their false voices firmly rest, ringing out into the classroom. They say that all comes out of merciless blind atoms, which cause the cold weight of iron, the transparency of glass, the stillness of clay, the agitation of flesh. Electrons pour through copper threads and computer gates and the air itself when stirred to lightning by the interaction of water droplets. Only what we can measure and deduce from measurement is true. The rest is the passing dream that we call our selves.
Ahmad is eighteen. This is early April; again green sneaks, seed by seed, into the drab city’s earthy crevices. He looks down from his new height and thinks that to the insects unseen in the grass he would be, if they had a consciousness like his, God. In the year past he has grown three inches, to six feet—more unseen materialist forces, working their will upon him. He will not grow any taller, he thinks, in this life or the next. If there is a next, an inner devil murmurs. What evidence beyond the Prophet’s blazing and divinely inspired words proves that there is a next? Where would it be hidden? Who would forever stoke Hell’s boilers? What infinite source of energy would maintain opulent Eden, feeding its dark-eyed houris, swelling its heavy-hanging fruits, renewing the streams and splashing fountains in which God, as described in the ninth sura of the Qur’an, takes eternal good pleasure? What of the second law of thermodynamics?
The deaths of insects and worms, their bodies so quickly absorbed by earth and weeds and road tar, devilishly strive to tell Ahmad that his own death will be just as small and final. Walking to school, he has noticed a sign, a spiral traced on the pavement in luminous ichor, angelic slime from the body of some low creature, a worm or snail of which only this trace remains. Where was the creature going, its path spiralling inward to no purpose? If it was seeking to remove itself from the hot sidewalk that was roasting it to death as the burning sun beat down, it failed and moved in fatal circles. But no little worm-body was left at the spiral’s center.
So where did that body fly to? Perhaps it was snatched up by God and taken straight to Heaven. Ahmad’s teacher, Shaikh Rashid, the imam at the mosque upstairs at 27811?2 West Main Street, tells him that according to the sacred tradition of the Hadith such things happen:
the Messenger, riding the winged white horse Buraq, was guided through the seven heavens by the angel Gabriel to a certain place, where he prayed with Jesus, Moses, and Abraham before returning to Earth, to become the last of the prophets, the ultimate one. His adventures that day are proved by the hoofprint, sharp and clear, that Buraq left on the Rock beneath the sacred Dome in the center of Al-Quds, called Jerusalem by the infidels and Zionists, whose torments in the furnaces of Jahannan are well described in the seventh and eleventh and fiftieth of the suras of the Book of Books.
Shaikh Rashid recites with great beauty of pronunciation the one hundred fourth sura, concerning Hutama, the Crushing Fire:
And who shall teach thee what the Crushing Fire is?
It is God’s kindled fire,
Which shall mount above the hearts of the damned;
It shall verily rise over them like a vault,
On outstretched columns.
When Ahmad seeks to extract from the images in the Qur’an’s Arabic—the outstretched columns, fi 'amadin mumaddada, and the vault high above the hearts of those huddled in terror and straining to see into the towering mist of white heat, naru l-lahi l-muqada—some hint of the Merciful’s relenting at some point in time, and calling a halt to Hutama, the imam casts down his eyes, which are an unexpectedly pale gray, as milky and elusive as a kafir woman’s, and says that these visionary descriptions by the Prophet are figurative. They are truly about the burning misery of separation from God and the scorching of our remorse for our sins against His commands. But Ahmad does not like Shaikh Rashid’s voice when he says this. It reminds him of the unconvincing voices of his teachers at Central High. He hears Satan’s undertone in it, a denying voice within an affirming voice. The Prophet meant physical fire when he preached unforgiving fire; Mohammed could not proclaim the fact of eternal fire too often.
Shaikh Rashid is not much older than Ahmad—perhaps ten years, perhaps twenty. He has few wrinkles in the white skin of his face. He is diffident though precise in his movements. In the years by which he is older, the world has weakened him. When the murmuring of the devils gnawing within him tinges the imam’s voice, Ahmad feels in his own self a desire to rise up and crush him, as God roasted that poor worm at the center of the spiral. The student’s faith exceeds the master’s; it frightens Shaikh Rashid to be riding the winged white steed of Islam, its irresistible onrushing. He seeks to soften the Prophet’s words, to make them blend with human reason, but they were not meant to blend: they invade our human softness like a sword. Allah is sublime beyond all particulars. There is no God but He, the Living, the Self-Subsistent; He is the light by which the sun looks black. He does not blend with our reason but makes our reason bow low, its forehead scraping the dust and bearing like Cain the mark of that dust. Mohammed was a mortal man but visited Paradise and consorted with the realities there. Our deeds and thoughts were written in the Prophet’s consciousness in letters of gold, like the burning words of electrons that a computer creates of pixels as we tap the keyboard.
The halls of the high school smell of perfume and bodily exhalations, of chewing gum and impure cafeteria food, and of cloth–cotton and wool and the synthetic materials of running shoes, warmed by young flesh. Between classes there is a thunder of movement; the noise is stretched thin over a violence beneath, barely restrained. Sometimes in the lull at the end of the school day, when the triumphant, jeering racket of departure has subsided and only the students doing extracurricular activities remain in the great building, Joryleen Grant comes up to Ahmad at his locker. He does track in the spring; she sings in the girls’ glee club. As students go at Central High, they are “good.” His religion keeps him from drugs and vice, though it also holds him rather aloof from his classmates and the studies on the curriculum. She is short and round and talks well in class, pleasing the teacher. There is an endearing self-confidence in how compactly her cocoa-brown roundnesses fill her clothes, which today are patched and sequinned jeans, worn pale where she sits, and a ribbed magenta shorty top both lower and higher than it should be. Blue plastic barrettes pull her glistening hair back as straight as it will go; the plump edge of her right ear holds along its crimp a row of little silver rings. She sings in assembly programs, songs of Jesus or sexual longing, both topics abhorrent to Ahmad. Yet he is pleased that she notices him, coming up to him now and then like a tongue testing a sensitive tooth.
“Cheer up, Ahmad,” she teases him. “Things can’t be so bad.” She rolls her half-bare shoulder, lifting it as if to shrug, to show she is being playful.
“They’re not bad,” he says. “I’m not sad,” he tells her. His long body tingles under his clothes—white shirt, narrow-legged black jeans—from the shower after track practice.
“You’re looking way serious,” she tells him. “You should learn to smile more.”
“Why? Why should I, Joryleen?”
“People will like you more.”
“I don’t care about that. I don’t want to be liked.”
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
John Updike was born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, in 1932. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954 and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker. His novels have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Foundation Award, and the William Dean Howells Medal. In 2007 he received the Gold Medal for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. John Updike died in January 2009.
- Date of Birth:
- March 18, 1932
- Date of Death:
- January 27, 2009
- Place of Birth:
- Shillington, Pennsylvania
- Place of Death:
- Beverly Farms, MA
- A.B. in English, Harvard University, 1954; also studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
I read the reviews about what a disappointment this book was. I think this is a very unfair judgment. These writers believe these feelings of Islams hate toward the West only come from praying to Allah. However, I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with the character, and I pray to nothing. I think these people missed the point. It is my opinion that John Updike was only trying to enlighten us with others understandings about the way we are brought up in the West, using the main character as an informer. This book did not only put truth into words, but also educates us about other people¿s faith. Overall, I thought it was worth my precious time.
This is a hard-hitting fiction the politically sensitive may refuse to embrace. With excellent prose as one has come to expect and enjoy from Updike, the existential vacuum we should have taken warning of from Frankl here in Updike's fiction fills with our oldest and most modern yet crude fears and temptations.
The more I read this, I began to get the idea that Updike was hiding behind his characters in order to show his sympathy for not just members of Islam, but the terrorists as well. I don't care what a writer says, he or she ARE the charcters that they create and each carries a small portion of their thoughts, hopes, dreams, and fears. Having said that, I expect Updike's latest disappointing effort to be highly rated by Al Jezera. Once those thoughts creeped into my mind, Terrorist was in a 'no-win' situation, at least for me.
I was very disappointed in the latest Updike novel. It is full of tediously minute details about pathetic characters and pages of lectures about Islam. The last section gets moving but ends with a thoroughly implausible event. Again Updike describes sad, unfulfilled Americans no different from Rabbit in his first depressing novels.
'Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair......The teachers, weak Christians and nonobservant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief.' Those are the thoughts of 18-year-old Ahmad, a student at a New Jersey high school. He appears to be a bomb waiting to go off - the son of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father who took off when the boy was three, he is devoted to Islam and has found a surrogate father in the imam who gives him instruction. It's not only his classmates that Ahmad disdains but also his mother and the string of boyfriends she dangles. Updike points a chilling portrait of a would be terrorist and also causes readers to wonder why no one had evidently seen the signs of this boy's mind set. In the author's description one of the reasons he's bent on destruction is that he can't think of anything else to do after high school. Little reason for killing people. No notice is taken when Ahmad suddenly evidences an interest in learning how to operate large trucks nor has anyone noted that the boy has never had a friend - male or female. One wonders if he ever longed to be a part of the high school crowd or go out with one of the girls he denigrates It is as if he has developed in a vacuum with only his hatred of American materialism to keep him company. Terrorist is an eerie dissection of an obsessive mind, a troubling story yet a necessary one as it relates to our world today. Plus, in the hands of the master John Updike it is rich in elegant prose and descriptive passages so substantive that it seems characters may leap from the page. - Gail Cooke
His Egyptian father abandoned him and his mother when he was three. Now fifteen years later in New Prospect, New Jersey high school student Ahmad Mulloy Ashmawy scorns his hippie Irish-American mother turning to the Islamic teachings of Shaikh Rashid, who runs a storefront mosque for spiritual and emotional guidance. Shaikh advocates retribution to those supporting the Zionist American government. --- Ahmad heeds the call to arms against the decadent American culture though he at times acts like a teen when he ¿competes¿ for the attention of Joryleen Grant against Tylenol Jones. Central High School Jewish near retirement guidance counselor Jack Levy tries to help Ahmad, but the student sees him as the epitome of why America is a failure. The lad is on the fast self actualization track starting with low esteem metamorphosing into a need to believe and belong to finally turning into a potential TERRORIST. --- Using stereotypes to display flawed characters, John Updike is at his best with this frightening intense thriller in which he makes it clear that social strata and economics make for the breeding grounds of terrorists here (Think England), in Iraq and elsewhere. The author¿s basic premise is that the West is losing the hearts of children who find physiological and psychological nourishment elsewhere while leaders posture like Panglois (Candide) that this is the best of all worlds. The TERRORIST is chilling. --- Harriet Klausner
As I read through the novel I kept returning to the same thought, why do I even care what happens to the main character. Updike attempts to get the reader to think and have some compassion for a troubled teen who turns to radical islam as a way out and to make us think about why someone becomes a terrorist. All I kept thinking was how much I hate this book and the character. Filled with pages and pages of islam teachings and attempts to make the reader unserstand why the teen is doing what he is doing. Didn't work for me
Excellent descriptive writing. Plausible and scary story. Probably happening as I write this. No shoot em up chase scenes or heroic save the day characters...just a realistic story with vintage Updike writing. Very enjoyable if troubling read. I loved it.
John Updike¿s novel ¿Terrorist¿ is startlingly different from his previous twenty-one novels. It is written in prose so elegant that I thought of the very best of Truman Capote¿s novels. (¿Breakfast at Tiffany¿s¿ came to my mind, about which Norman Mailer said, ¿It¿s so perfect that I wouldn¿t change a word of it¿). The story is about an eighteen years old high school senior named Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy. Born to an Irish American woman named Terry Malloy (whose skin is so white and freckled that it ¿seems unnaturally white, like a leper¿s¿) and an Egyptian exchange student, Ahmad is a loner. Writes Updike: ¿His religion keeps him from drugs and vice, though it also holds him rather aloof from his classmates and the studies on the curriculum¿. When Ahmad was only three years old, Terry is abandoned by her husband, and she works as a nurse¿s aid in a hospital. It¿s obvious to her now that her husband had used her to gain American citizenship. At age eleven, Ahmed starts his religious instruction from a Lebanese Imam named Shaikh Rashid at a mosque, a converted dance studio above a shop in New Prospect, New Jersey. He attends Central High School. Ahmed¿s religious instruction provides an opportunity to Updike for some long discourses on Islam in the modern world. Upon graduation, Ahmad secures a job with the help of the Imam, as truck driver for a furniture company called Excellency Home Furnishings. The most remarkable aspect of this novel is the author¿s luminous prose. It has the pleasant, subdued and endearing glow of the twilight of the tropics, befitting the author¿s twilight years. Read his description of the girls in Ahmad¿s high school: ¿Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, ¿What else is there to see?¿ About Joryleen Grant who often flirts with Ahmad, Updike writes: ¿There is an endearing self-confidence in how compactly her cocoa-brown roundness fills her clothes, which today are patched and sequined jeans, worn pale where she sits, and a ribbed magenta shorty top both lower and higher than it should be.¿ Simply lovely, I thought. And this description of God: ¿There is no God but He, the Living, the Self-Subsistent He is the light by which the sun looks black. He does not blend with our reason but makes our reason bow low, its forehead scraping the dust and bearing like Cain the mark of dust.¿ I have read a few unflattering reviews of this novel in newspapers and also on the Internet. The one that particularly rattled me, and which I felt was quite unfair, was the one written by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. And I suddenly remembered her acerbic review of Morris Berman¿s thought-provoking and gripping non-fiction: ¿Dark ages America¿. And it dawned on me very clearly that any time an author writes something that can be even remotely construed as ¿anti-American¿, and any time an author writes something that can be interpreted as negative, shocking or unflattering information about American army or the American government, Michiko Kakutani reaches out to her almost inexhaustible supply of over-ripe tomatoes and rotten eggs in her pantry to pelt the poor author with. To those who haven¿t read any Updike novel, I wish to say: Read ¿Terrorist¿. But read it slowly to savor the beauty of his crystalline prose.
I am totally surprised at the low quality of writing and substance of this book. This is a book based on some sensationalized 3rd-rate newspaper type character, without any resemblance to reality. Updike uses verses from Quran probably to show his knowledge'!' to the foolish readers that he is trying to sell this book to. It's a garbled up book. But on the other hand, Updike is probably just trying to make a few bucks by riding the anti-Muslim tide and capitalizing on the fear-mongering tactics used by the media and the administration. For Updike's knowledge: Muslims do not call their teachers 'master.' Also, according to Islam, God has no son and no Muslim wishes to be called 'son' by God, even when one is a martyr. A worthless book, poor story and even poorer writing - basically a mumbo-jumbo.
I picked this book up from the library, suspecting a suspenful and hi-tech terrorist thriller. What I got was one of the most depressing, aggravatingly monotonous books I've ever suffered through. Updike switches back and forth through several characters, all of whom are manic-depressive, and who gleefully guide you through pages and pages of depressive rants until Updike switches to a new character to move the plot. Updike also annoyingly sets Pennsylvania on a pedestal, gushing vicariously about how swell it is (Updike is from PA, coincidence?). I continued to read through the slow-as-molasses tedium to see if the book would pick up. It didn't. Updike rushes through the terror plot to get back to the depressive characters being depressed. Even the 'climax', which lasts about 7 lines (literally), consists of the main character realizing that Allah doesn't want him to kill people. WTF? The ending was implausible and downright stupid. I guess Updike got caught up in things to be depressed about and completely forgot about the plot. I wouldn't touch this book again without a ten foot, manic-depressive, Pennsylvania-made pole.