John Updike has written a contemporary thriller, a first for him (after publishing 50 fiction and non-fiction books) and a pleasant surprise for the rest of us, because it is a fine one. John Grisham et al., stand aside. A pro has entered your ranks.
The terrorist of the title and the story’s center is Ahmad (Ashmawy) Mulloy, son of a red-haired Irish-American mother and an Egyptian exchange student father, who abandoned the family not long after his birth. We meet Ahmad as a restless 18-year-old in the spring of his senior year at New Prospect High School in northern New Jersey, an area of once vibrant mill towns now on the skids. That Ahmad is not a happy camper at his school is immediately evident from the novel’s opening sentence: “Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God.” He views his fellow students as “infidels,” “slaves to images, false ones of happiness and affluence,” while his “teachers, weak Christians and non-observant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief.” While repressing “the inner devil” of ambition and vanity within himself, he hears the “Satan’s voice” of modern vulgarity and hucksterism all around him.
As soon as the reader begins to wonder how in the world a nice Jersey boy (which Ahmad is) got so weird, he finds the answer on meeting his imam for the past seven years, Shaikh Rashid, who presides in a tacky mosque (formerly a dance studio), on the second floor of a building on Main Street, above a nail salon and a check-cashing facility. Shaikh Rashid turns out to be an engaging, droll character despite the fierce rhetoric (“western culture is Godless,” Allah “makes reason bow low”). And though his apparent skepticism about some crucial Koranic proof-texts upset Ahmad somewhat, it did not diminish the boy’s militant fervor.
The story’s characters and their motivation are quickly and skillfully established. The events occur in a six-month period, between April and September 2004, ending right after the third anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Most of the action takes place in New Jersey, with two crucial side trips to Washington, D.C., at the headquarters of the Secretary of Homeland Security. Among Updike’s many exceptional gifts is his ability to establish for the reader a sense of place, to summon up a lived-in, astutely observed, humanly imprinted world even in a fast-paced thriller. When Henry James defined the artist as “one on whom nothing is lost,” he must have had Updike proleptically in mind.
The novel’s level of suspense is maintained by the author’s deft interweaving of Ahmad’s engagement with the plot’s key characters. Besides the Shaikh and Ahmad’s louche Bohemian mother, they are: Jack Levy, his high school guidance counselor, an agnostic Jew who is repelled by the ugliness of modern America almost as much as is Ahmad; Jack’s obese and rather dim wife, whose sister, Hermione, (by Dickensian coincidence) works for the Homeland Security Secretary; Joryleen Grant, an African-American fellow student of Ahmad’s who also is a choir singer, providing Updike the opportunity to create a splendid extended scene of over 20 pages, recounting a Sunday service in a black church (a literary gem of the first order); and Charlie Chehab, a Lebanese-American Muslim, the son of the owner of Chehab’s Home Furnishing Business, for whom Ahmad works as a truck driver. Charlie is a cynical anti-American who, on trips with Ahmad, poisons his mind further, gradually corrupting him and luring him to be the key actor in the plan to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel beneath the Hudson River.
A reader familiar with Updike’s fiction will be further rewarded for being alert to multiple layers of allusion and theme pulsating beneath the literary conventions of the thriller. For example, one clue to the novel’s serious-comic intent can be found in its epigraph from Jonah 4:3-4, where Jonah says, “And now, O Lord, please take my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” God replies, “Is it right for you to be angry?” This exchange occurs right after the wicked, godless people of Nineveh (think New York City) have been spared and forgiven by God because of Jonah’s preaching. Nevertheless—and incongruously—Jonah is disappointed, sulky because such wicked people have been spared. The Lord’s question, “Is it right for you to be angry?” is a rebuke, challenging Jonah to ask himself: How can I, a recipient of God’s mercy, begrudge that mercy when bestowed on others?
Is Ahmad a modern Jonah? Will he or won’t he blow up the Lincoln Tunnel? That, dear reader, is for you to find out.