Tuesday, May 27, 2008

John Updike's "Terrorist":Book Review

"America is paved with fat and tar."-- I took this phrase (for my Amazon review title) from Jack Levy's interior monologue. The featured synopses on Amazon delve into the plot, and the strengths and weaknesses have been already analyzed by others posting here. I rarely read Updike, about a novel a decade it seems, but I was inspired to seek this out by a mention of it in the paper recently-- it compared Updike's gutsy, if flawed, portrayal of ambivalence and detachment of one living in America to the consumerist, flaccid, and degraded culture that many throughout the world both envy us for creating and hate us for flaunting.

Ahmad and Jack alternate for most of the book, and I found their mental landscapes worthy of exploration. Updike's taken great care in attempting to convey the alienated worldview both his leading figures share. Teaching in the inner city myself, I recognized many of Jack's musings as closer to my own than I'd have liked to contemplate. He thinks of himself as a guidance counselor, but one who waves good-bye to his graduates as they slip off the edge into the "world's morass."

For his Muslim teenager, awkward and holy, sexual and repressed, Updike may naturally be on less familiar ground, but the author does manage to make his inner "jihad" convicing, especially in scenes that on the outside appear to be small talk to both men, but inside show the tensions of secular vs. believer, jaded elder vs. idealistic youth, often with insight, compassion, and verve. Ahmad's compared by the slightly omniscient narrator late in the novel as like a restless insect, in a typically eloquent passage: "His soul feels like one of those out-of-season flies that, trapped in winter in a warm room, buzz and insistently bump against the glass of a window saturated with the sunlight of an outdoors wherein they would quickly die." (238)

One of the lasting effects I take away from this ambitious novel is not only the decay of the city, which reminds me of Philip Roth's New Jersey, but in Updike's attempt to render the estranged perspective of Shaikh Rashid and his teaching of the Qur'an. The passages selected for instruction hover as if from another dimension, and are well chosen, especially the Al-Nur sura of the light and the mirage, and that of the tale "of the men of the elephant before the assault of the birds." (275)

Updike may fail to convince me in the chatter of Joryleen or Charlie of his ear for ordinary dialogue, but with Jack, the Shaikh, and Ahmad, the author shows that he can enter characters who we might think of as opposites of ourselves, and as his talent proves despite the rather formulaic storyline, Updike dares to take on a subject that for its own inherent drama and conflict will keep you reading late into the night.

No comments: