Terrorist is the 22nd novel written by lauded author John Updike. The story centers on an American-born Islamist teenager named Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, although Ahmad’s high school guidance counselor, Jack Levy, also plays a central role. The novel seeks to explore the worldview and motivations of religious fundamentalists (specifically within Islam) while at the same time dissecting the morals and lifeways of residents of the decaying fictional New Jersey suburb of "New Prospect."
The novel begins with a brief monologue by Ahmad on the condition of American youth as represented by the student body mingling in the corridors of his high school. He gets into a fight with an older boy named Tylenol who thinks Ahmad is flirting with his girlfriend Joryleen. While Ahmad has sexual impulses toward the girl, he represses them, as God instructs. Ahmad finds solace at his mosque (located in an abandoned dance studio above a bail bonds office) and in the study of the Qu'ran under the guidance of his imam, Shaikh Rashid. He believes his conviction to be stronger than that of his teacher because of the Shaikh's tendency to interpret the Prophet Muhammad’s suras and to display traces of a skeptical mind-set. Supporting Ahmad at home is his mother, Teresa Mulloy, a third-generation Irish-American who, while raised as a Catholic, has abandoned her religious beliefs. Because of her religious infidelity and her comparative openness toward sexuality and relationships with men, she has become one of the many objects of Ahmad's hatred -- although in her case she is accorded a dutiful love as well. On the other hand Ahmad idolizes his absent father, an Egyptian immigrant who abandoned him and his mother when Ahmad was three years old.
One of Teresa’s suitors in the story is Ahmad’s guidance counselor Jack Levy, who initially visits her to try and steer Ahmad toward college and away from his chosen career path, truck driver. Levy is an American Jew who has abandoned practicing his religion yet (as many characters in the novel note) still maintains the stereotypical Jewish cynicism and depression. He can be just as critical as Ahmad about American culture, but rather than viewing it in terms of distance from God he sees it as the outcome of historical events and naked greed. For his part Ahmad desires to become a truck driver on the advice of his Shaikh because driving is a practical skill of good merit whereas academic studies serve only to advance (American) secular beliefs. Working in transportation is also the path that leads Ahmad toward involvement in a terrorist plot directed against the American infidels (nonbelievers). The novel traces Ahmad's thoughts and actions as the plot unfolds and, in moving the story forward, also encompasses a variety of other characters linked to one degree or another to the central figure.
Updike in this novel employs a traditional third-person narrator, together with dialogue, but does so by shifting the narrator’s voice somewhat to reflect the thinking and attitudes of the principle character in the scene to which the narration applies. Thus, narration involving Ahmad tends to be focused on truth-seeking and the wondrous powers of God and the prophet Muhammad. That involving Levy tends to exhibit the surfeit of experience and disillusionment that lie at the heart of this character, and so on. The author’s stratagem, while generally illuminating, works better in some cases than in others. For example, in the case of Levy, Teresa, and perhaps especially Beth, Updike succeeds in convincing the reader that he (as narrator) has tapped into these characters’ unfolding thoughts and emotions. In the case of Ahmad, however, it is arguable that an American high school student, even one of Ahmad’s intelligence and principled views, would possess so sophisticated a grasp of the world and (English) language as Updike seeks to impute to him. The dialogue, too, is subject to this criticism. For example, in speaking with Joryleen, Ahmad observes that
the mosque and its teachers give them [Muslims] what the Christian U.S. disdains to – respect, and a challenge that asks something of them. It asks austerity. It asks restraint. All America wants of its citizens, your President has said, is for us to buy – to spend money we cannot afford and thus propel the economy forward for himself and other rich men.
It is doubtful whether such terms and such phrasing would flow from the mouth of even an Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, but not so doubtful as to hinder one’s appreciation of the rest of this insightful and, as always with Updike, deeply humanistic novel.