Book Review: “Terrorist” (John Updike)

Rana Sweis

Posted Oct 13, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Book Review: “Terrorist” (John Updike)

by Rana Sweis

Amman, Jordan - John Updike’s new novel, Terrorist, released a few weeks ago in the United States, is selling like “hot cakes”. Perhaps it became an instant best-seller because it is a John Updike novel. Or perhaps because the life and mind of a terrorist fascinates Americans.

The book opens with thoughts running through the mind of an Arab-American, high school student, named Ahmad, an intolerant, conservative, aloof but shrewd critic of the American way of life.

His mother is Irish-American. His father, absent from his life since childhood, is an Egyptian. A sensitive and bright senior in high school, Ahmad seems to be failing to live up to his potential when he reveals to his Jewish guidance counsellor, Jack - the novel’s other main character - that he is planning a career merely as a truck driver.

The novel often reads like non-fiction because of its depiction of real political events and identity issues. There is the story of 9/11, the mention of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more importantly, the tale of a confused adolescent living between two worlds, Muslim and American.

The reader witnesses Ahmad’s growing resentment and lack of healthy social relationships evolve into something far more unhealthy than normal adolescent angst – Ahmad is considering becoming a suicide bomber. Jack senses Ahmad’s potential and intelligence but is unable to stop the process, partly because of his sympathetic views of some of Ahmad’s criticisms of American society. His interest in Ahmad leads him also down his own path of self-assessment and strange encounters.

Updike’s prose is vivid, luring the reader into Ahmad’s streets, neighbourhood and school: “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.”

Unfortunately, clichés and stereotypes at times stifle the novel, despite Updike’s gifted way with words. As the title suggests, sometimes it seems that Updike’s portrayal of Ahmad involves stereotypes that border on racism, and whether these are Updike’s perceptions or merely those of his characters is not clear. Even the cover illustration is that of a shadowy figure, with no clear features, walking away.

Witness a Federal agent discussing the difficulties of investigating suspects: “Damn!” he explodes…“I hate losing an asset. We got so few in the Muslim community…We don’t have enough Arabic speakers, and half of those we do have don’t think like we do. There’s something weird about the language – it makes them feeble-minded, somehow…The explosives team…they are not talking, or else the translator isn’t telling us what they’re saying. They all cover for each other, even the ones on our payroll, you can’t trust your own recruits anymore…”

Still, this novel remains a page-turner and worthy read despite these flaws. Updike’s use of Arabic words and quotations from the Qur’an demonstrate substantial research on his part, lending an impression of credence to a portrayal that many Arab readers may feel uncomfortable with. Unfortunately, a few young Muslim men do take Ahmad’s path, and Updike does a respectable and scholarly job of exploring the twisted interpretations of Islam that result in such destructive actions.

Ultimately, Updike’s hopeful end, rushed though it may be, does suggest that violence and terrorism can be avoided and that inter-cultural understanding is possible: it is the American guidance counsellor, not the team of heavily armed American FBI agents, who ultimately saves the day, because Jack is able to empathize with and understand Ahmad.

Uncomfortable as the novel is at times, it does go a long way toward exploring, and potentially helping bridge, the ever-growing gap of misunderstanding between the Arab world and Americans. Updike deconstructs these issues and presents them eloquently, albeit painfully. At the same time, Updike seems equally interested in using Ahmad’s point-of-view to criticise contemporary American society as he is in writing a post-9/11 thriller. For both Muslim and Western audiences, there is much to be learned from this novel.


* Rana Sweis is a journalist and recent graduate of Hofstra University. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), August 29, 2006;
Copyright permission has been granted for republication.

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