Updike goes inside the mind of a Muslim teen
John Updike, whose provocative 22nd novel, Terrorist, tells the story of an 18-year-old, New Jersey-born suicide bomber, attributes his remarkable productivity to the way he has arranged his life. "Out of habit as well as compulsion" he shows up at his office around 9 a.m. ("or a little before, actually, now that I'm getting older and wake up earlier"). He tries to write a thousand words a day. He "bolts through to the end of a draft" then "looks at it with a cool eye."
"I try to structure my life so it isn't too exciting in itself. It's not a big-city life," Updike says during a call to his home in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, a small industrial town across the river from Salem. Updike and his second wife have lived there for 24 years.
"I find small towns - maybe because I was born in one - handier. The bank, the post office, the fruit and vegetable store, the liquor store, all those things are within an easy walk in this village. That's not true in a city."
On September 11, 2001, however, Updike had a catastrophic big-city moment. On a visit to his wife's son in Brooklyn, he watched the burning and collapse of the World Trade Center towers. "It gave me a sense that I was in a very minor way a witness to whatever we're engaged in now. Bush calls it the war on terror, as if terror can ever be overcome. And as a novel like The Coup  shows, I'm interested in Islam as a more fiery and absolutist and, some would say, fanatical brand of theistic faith. So it was not just my happening to have been there but my sensation that I was qualified to speak about why young men are willing to become suicide bombers. I can kind of understand it, and I'm not sure too many Americans can."
Updike's terrorist is Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, son of an Irish-American mother and an Egyptian father who abandoned the family before Ahmad can remember. Ahmad grows up in the hopeless inner city of New Prospect, New Jersey, a wondrously described fictional town across the Hudson from New York. Seeking some connection with his father and some sense of stability, Ahmad begins attending a storefront mosque and falls under the sway of Shaikh Rashid, then becomes, in a way, a more perfect believer than his teacher. "To Ahmad the words of the Koran are sacred. They're alive. They're fire," Updike says. "I thought it was important to show how much Ahmad needed to make his own philosophy, as it were, because the environment wasn't coming up with any."
Ironically, in many ways Ahmad is an ideal kid. "He's what we're all trying to raise, this really nice, upright boy, full of faith and seriousness," Updike says wryly. "As Jack Levy keeps telling him, you're really the model kid except that you're trying to kill us all."
Jack Levy is the other central figure in Updike's narrative. A non-observant Jew and a world-weary high school guidance counselor on the brink of retirement, he takes an interest - a little too late as it turns out - in Ahmad. "There's a lot I don't know about how America conducts its business," Updike says, "but being a schoolteacher's son, I do have a feeling for high school teachers and that sort of weariness that comes from 30 years of counseling kids who don't seem to be any better for it while at the same time there's that do-good streak of somehow wanting to save somebody from a fall."
The climactic moment of Terrorist brings these two figures together in a desperate confrontation, which Updike says was the driving vision of the book. He is understandably reluctant to discuss this key scene for fear of spoiling the suspense.
One of the most honored writers of his generation and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Updike tells his story with the thrilling, gorgeous prose we have come to expect of him. There is, for example, a terrible beauty in his description of the lake of rubble in the hollowed-out core of downtown New Prospect. And there is a ravishing sermon at a Black Christian church that Ahmad attends at the invitation of his seductive classmate Joryleen. "You're working partly out of your subconscious," Updike says of this scene. "Any work of art, including a piece of fiction, that you're working on month after month is somewhat out of control. You're at the mercy of what turns you on, and obviously that Black sermon turned me on."
Updike has often explored themes of religious faith and disillusionment. In Terrorist, he links those themes to the legacy of fanatical violence. "It's about an America now in which you can't get into a federal building without being checked for a gun, where boarding a plane has become an ordeal in a way it never used to be. Every day we - especially people who try to move around - feel the tensions in what used to be our freedom. We feel all these very real effects that Mohamed Atta and his colleagues created."
And yet Updike portrays Ahmad with empathy. "I think there are enough people complaining about the Arab menace that I can be allowed to try to show this young man as sympathetically as I can," Updike says. "He's my hero. I tried to understand him and to dramatize his world. Besides it's not just young Muslims who are killing themselves. We have all these American high school students, steeped in Protestantism and Judaism, who bring guns to school and shoot up the cafeteria knowing they're going to die at the end of this rush. There are a lot of teenagers who are going to take big chances."
In novels like Terrorist, John Updike himself, now in his mid-70s, also takes big chances. "I've not become jaded about writing," he says. "That still seems somehow very worth doing. I don't quite know why it is worthy in an age that is groaning under the weight of unread or little-read books. But just to conjure up things out of your head and turn them into black marks on paper is a great privilege and remains very exciting to me."
Alden Mudge is a juror for the California Book Awards.