Props to the great John Updike for articulating a powerful point of view on a timely subject, for exploring a world beyond his familiar leafy suburbs, and for trying something completely new — a suspense novel — at age 74. But for all its marvelous writing and philosophical cogency, Updike’s Terrorist is an awkward, overdetermined drama acted out by gritty urban characters he can’t bring to life with his exquisite painterly brushstrokes and delicate palette. These are characters — and this is a thriller — that Richard Price should have written.
The title character is a half-Egyptian, half-Irish New Jersey teen named Ahmad Mulloy (complexion: ”dun, a low-luster shade lighter than beige”), who burns with religious fervor stoked at a dodgy local mosque. Ahmad attends an alienating inner-city high school where he interacts with almost nobody besides flirty Joryleen (complexion: ”darker than caramel but paler than chocolate”); her thuggish boyfriend, Tylenol (complexion: ”walnut furniture-stain”); and the school’s sad-sack guidance counselor, Jack Levy (complexion unspecified).
In his 60s now, Jack sees himself as ”a pathetic elderly figure on a shore, shouting out to a flotilla of the young as they slide into the fatal morass of the world.” His home life is itself a morass: His wife, Beth, has ballooned into a ”whale of a woman giving off too much heat through her blubber,” and she can barely struggle out of her extra-wide La-Z-Boy to pick up the phone.
If Beth is the fleshy embodiment of America, is it any mystery why Ahmad loathes this country? Why he wants to escape to paradise by blowing something up? Jack has lower aims: a little paradise right now with Ahmad’s floozy mother, Teresa (complexion: ”almost too pale, like that of a plastic doll”). Some of the novel’s finest moments occur between these two doughy, lonely people; no one writes more precise, indelible, and unsexy love scenes than Updike.
Unfortunately, when they open their mouths, Teresa and Jack spout canned cultural commentary. ”There’s a certain hunger for, I don’t know, the absolute, when everything is so relative and all the economic forces are pushing instant gratification,” Jack pontificates postcoitally. Joryleen and Ahmad’s pillow talk runs a similar course. (Joryleen: ”How’s old Allah doing? How do you like being holy, now that school’s out and we’re in the real world?” Ahmad: ”What are we? Smelly animals, really, with a little bunch of animal needs, and shorter lives than turtles.”) True enough, but no 18-year-old on earth talks this way while holding a high school hottie. Updike makes some profound comments about capitalist bloat and the lure of extreme faith, but he has entrusted them to minimally developed characters delivering clumsy platform papers.