Incredibly, Terroristis the first Updike novel I’ve read (I know, I know…) and, on the heels of De Lillo’s disappointing Falling Man, with which it has several points in common, I found it a far better book. It takes on one element of post 9/11 America – what makes a terrorist? – and, unlike De Lillo, produces a portrait that hits home because of the unexpected sympathy it evokes. Updike’s terrorist, the son of an artistic life-loving Irish nurse and an Egyptian exchange student who disappeared when Ahmad was three, is a refined, fastidious young man, respectful and self-respecting, utterly three-dimensional, in many ways a son of whom anyone would feel proud. Under the thrall of his local imam, yet also aware of his imam’s failings, Ahmad is slowly drawn into a web of fundamentalist extremism, with the inevitable consequences (sort of). What makes the book so engaging and effective is Updike’s refusal to demonise Ahmad himself. On the contrary, he’s wormed his creative way into the boy’s predicament with enormous skill, ending up as close to him as Ahmad’s neck-vein is to God. Indeed, the person who might be considered to suffer most from the novelist’s pitiless gaze is the obese wife of Ahmad’s school counsellor, Jack Levy. Levy, in many ways the counterpoint to Ahmad, at least partially corroborates the views of the boy as he gazes on the world around him. There’s a sense in which Updike’s own distaste seems to inform the characters, maybe to the novel’s detriment, but it’s refreshingly ecumenical, extending well beyond the conniving imam to the vacuous self-aggrandising secretary of state.
The fact that Updike has chosen to work with a small group of characters and to use a tightly constructed, almost thriller-like, plot leads to one or two moments in which disbelief must usefully be suspended, but this shouldn’t detract from the overall impact of the book, nor the excitement of the final chapter.