Terrorist (2006), by John Updike

I sent the following review to John Updike, with whom I’d had a sporadic snail mail correspondence from the late 1990s until his death in January 2009. He was kind enough to comment on the draft of my novel, Heaven Engine, during the years in which I composed it; and he graciously gave me formal permission to cite one of his comments in my Acknowledgments for that novel. Previous to my review of Terrorist, I’d passed along to Updike at various times thoughts on Roger’s Version and Couples which, along with the Rabbit books and The Centaur, are his works I most admire. Here are three excerpts from his reply to my comments on Terrorist sent approximately five months before he passed.

Aug 10 08

Dear Mr. Clarkson–

Thank you indeed for your kind and shrewd review of Terrorist; I think you read the novel very well…. I was cheered and encouraged by your letter…. As far as home-grown terrorists go, there seems a lull….

John Updike



There are many things in Terrorist to appreciate about Updike’s mastery. Here is one. The street address, along a shabby way of small shops in New Prospect, New Jersey, of the second floor mosque, the “humblest” in the city, where Shaikh Rashid teaches the Holy Qur’an to Arab-Irish American and protagonist Ahmad Ashmaway Mulloy, eighteen and being recruited for a suicide truck bombing of the Lincoln Tunnel, is: 2781 1/2 = 99.5 = a position in a sentence that is exactly halfway down page 99 of the Knopf hardcover first edition = a slightly less than complete — say 99.5% at most –conversion by that point (after eleven years of faithfully taking demanding instruction at the mosque) of Ahmad to the Straight-Path-To-Paradise/Death-To-The-Infidels themes of suicidal jihad stressed by the Shaikh, the remaining 0.5% making all the difference as it enlarges via American Experience itself to become a growing measure of the chief profundity of Terrorist, the poetic empiricism that the spirit of place of the New World seems almost always to promote, as Updike’s novel dramatizes the dynamic of terrorism Over Here: Coming of Age or perhaps the classic Conversion Story in which the de facto or near Orphan discovers that some or other official Straight Path To Paradise bends and lengthens to become the Open Road.

Here is another. “Ahmad” = I (am) angry and, according to Charlie Chehab, a late-appearing and pivotal character, also = I (am) crazy (Charlie affectionately calling Ahmad “Madman”).

Another: Updike’s special gift for rendering the poetic empiricism, the grand impressionism, we experience in our American lives in which, as Charlie Parker says, “Now is the time,” in this land of often cruel change. Everyone’s “stream of consciousness” is wonderfully poetic; Updike, a wonderfully poetic writer, pulls off the great trick of dramatizing that truth by putting into the thoughts and sometimes the speech of his characters a haunting literary poetry that at once seems natural to the character–the magician Updike stays invisible; we think that high school athletes like Rabbit Angstrom and Ahmad are thinking and speaking in a “conventional” yet compellingly beautiful way when, like the rest of us, they are apprehending and learning with their natural fleeting poetry that shows in their thoughts and words. No one else can do this as well as Updike.

Shaikh Rashid is a species of bitter, violent, nostalgic aesthete. He hates change. He loathes and fears the modern world, especially Over Here, because it is robbing him of his Old Dream. He cannot hide, but he wants to shut out the world, blow it up if need be (and such seems to be needed to him) so that there is a Great Hush in which he can now hear the long-ago desert wind in the Holy Qur’an.

The mosque is a dim place with high, small, dirty windows through which Ahmad, hopelessly hungrier and hungrier for the impersonal, bustling, often ugly world of the infidels, i.e., his American Experience (certainly including a sexy black girl and high school classmate, Joryleen), can see the real world only dimly, literally as through a glass darkly. In his tutorial confinement the increasingly impertinent Ahmad begins to trip the Shaikh up here and there about inconsistencies in how the Shaikh interprets the Holy Qur’an. Ahmad is becoming a doubter. Ever more restless, he is caught up in a growing new and noisy experience drowning out those ancient desert winds in the long-ago world of the Straight Path. He’s angry about losing his severe God of the Holy Qur’an to whatever other God (or perhaps god) created all there is around him in his New World. Yet his anger does not force his grand decision in the novel, a decision which resolves this most topical drama of terrorism.

Somewhere in medieval Scholastic philosophy, someone brilliantly ponderous notes that humans cannot abide Nothingness. “Nothingness” perforce becomes something. You must say, most fundamentally, “There is Nothingness.” If you try to be clever and say only “Nothingness,” the existential verb is implied nevertheless. In a profound sense, we can’t really think about Nothing.

In the end, Ahmad chooses Life over Death, Being over “Nonbeing,” Good over Evil, Preservation over Nihilism. He becomes a yea-sayer. He understands that the Creator, a conscious being or perhaps simply impersonal forces, also cannot abide Nothingness. Ahmad immediately is unhappy about his epiphany, but deeply he begins to accede to it. Call it Coming of Age Over Here. Or call it an American Conversion Story.

Maybe later on, Ahmad, who feels he has lost his Old, Terrible God, will form his own version of a heroic Barthian faith in a God in the face of “nothingness.”

I doubt it, though.


Postscript: Terrorist, written late in Updike’s career, received an angry negative review from Christopher Hitchens in Atlantic in which Hitchens displays two stultifying behaviors. The first is the declaration in his review that upon reading Terrorist he hurled his copy across the room in disgust. The second is his reading (key to Hitchens’s review) that Jack Levy, Ahmad’s high school advisor, convinces Ahmad not to act the terrorist and detonate a truck bomb in the Lincoln Tunnel in heavy traffic. A reasonably intelligent high school student who reads Terrorist will understand that one of the clearest points in Updike’s novel is that Levy does no such thing; in fact, Levy, as he is riding along with Ahmad in the truck in the Lincoln Tunnel near the end of the novel, works himself into a mood of welcoming death, Levy’s life being one of sharp regret to him. To state the obvious: Such an outrageous misreading of a significant irony by a supposed major critic illuminates that Hitchens failed badly in his review. In Andrew Begley’s biography, Updike, which came out several years after Updike’s passing in 2009 and which I read in 2015, Begley recounts that Updike kept a copy of Hitchens’s review for months without reading it owing to Updike dreading to confront it. This is sad, especially given the childish and incompetent review by Hitchens over and against the stature of Updike’s writing. When I sent my comments on Terrorist to Updike, I dismissed Hitchens’s review (as well as one by John Leonard) as showing a very bad reading of Terrorist. After reading Begley, I’m glad I did.