It has become a critical commonplace for reviewers to refer to John Updike as the chronicler of American life and values. For more than four decades his novels have reflected trends in the United States. In Terrorist, Updike turns his considerable talent for storytelling and social commentary to the most important topic of the nascent twenty-first century: the terrorist threats on American cities and citizens.
The story line focuses on Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, a teenager from northern New Jersey whose Egyptian father deserted Ahmad’s Irish mother when the child was very young. Readers learn early in the novel that Ahmad has studied Arabic with Shaikh Rashid, the imam at the small mosque he has attended since he was barely eleven. For years he has read the Qurՙn with Rashid and listened as the older Muslim preached against the vices of America and promoted the simple joys that come from following the Straight Path. It may be farfetched to believe that a boy not yet in his teen years could reject American values in favor of those he finds at the local mosque, but if one grants Updike this bit of literary legerdemain, the story that follows Ahmad’s decision to live out his faith becomes frighteningly logical.
The action of the novel opens in the spring of 2004, during Ahmad’s final weeks in high school. He has been a member of the track team. He has pursued his studies diligently. He is reluctant to engage in physical confrontationssomething that happens on occasion at his high school, where more students than not belong to minority groups. Like so many young men rising to adulthood, he can be passionate and myopic about his personal goals. Ahmad is committed to his faith in the way other teenage boys are committed to sports or the pursuit of sexual pleasures. Through him, Updike exposes the materialism and degenerate morality that drives so many Americans; the country in which Ahmad finds himself is one that seems to have lost its moral compass and is drifting toward self-destruction as people remember their individual rights but have little sense of their social responsibilities. Nevertheless, throughout much of the short time span in which the action of this novel occurs, Ahmad does not seem prone to take violent action against his neighbors. He despises them, to be sure, but he is content to remain aloof from those who, in his view, are on the fast track to perdition. He decides not to pursue college because he believes doing so will further test his faithsomething he seems to dread.
Like many eighteen-year-olds, Ahmad is malleable. His desire to be taken seriously as an adult makes him easy prey for older men and women who wish to take advantage of him. Because Updike relates the story from Ahmad’s point of view, the reader becomes aware only gradually of the ease with which adults with sinister motives can manipulate this boy whose constant attire is a white shirt and black jeanssymbolic of his way of viewing the world. Certainly the reader realizes long before Ahmad does that his spiritual adviser has been preparing him for his role as a terrorist for some time. Shaikh Rashid introduces him to the more radical aspects of Islam during the time he tutors Ahmad in Arabic. He subtly suggests that, rather than following his classmates to college after high school, Ahmad should seek out honest work; the imam recommends he look into getting a commercial driver’s license. When Ahmad graduates, Shaikh Rashid steers him to a job at a furniture store owned by two Lebanese brothers and run by their nephew, Charlie Chehab. Over the summer months, Charlie slowly tests Ahmad’s commitment to radical action. He even arranges for Ahmad to lose his virginity; ironically, the girl he hires for this task is one of Ahmad’s school friends, Joryleen Grant, and the two manage to engage in activities that allow the young Muslim to refrain from consummating this liaison.
Only after he has tasted carnal pleasures is Ahmad informed that his imam and the Chehabs are part of an Islamist cell already planning to launch another major attack on New York City. By this time, he is easily persuaded that if he wishes to pursue the Straight Path, he must be willing to sacrifice everything, even his life, for Islam. Once he commits to joining the group, Ahmad learns that his training as a driver makes him the perfect candidate for martyrdom: He will drive a bomb into the Lincoln Tunnel and explode it at rush hour on September 13, 2004.
Ahmad is saved from actually carrying out his plan by an unlikely hero. Before Ahmad graduates from New Prospect’s Central High School, Jack Levy, a guidance counselor at the school, becomes interested in Ahmad’s...
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