Pros: A look into a Muslim mind which is scarily close to real
Cons: So many wasted characters and sideplots
The Bottom Line: It's captivating and as close as you can get to seeing a Muslim's mind without actually becoming a Muslim
Chances are that unless Ive missed something somewhere, John Updike was never a Muslim. That fact makes his achievement with Terrorist very remarkable. Terrorist is spent almost entirely within the thoughts of an average American Muslim. Granted most American Muslims probably wont go to the extreme that Ahmad, the protagonist of Terrorist, almost went, But America, please trust me on this: If your Muslim co-worker or schoolmate is always talking about his religion and the way it works and he makes his devotion to it obvious by, say, wearing the cap or robe, then THIS IS HOW HE THINKS. Its the best glimpse inside his head youre likely to ever get. If you are or were ever a devoted Muslim, Terrorist will strike a very resonant chord.
Terrorist is a scary book in that way. It perfectly captures the tearing of modern Muslims between faith and reality, and the frustration of fervent Muslims with westernized philosophies and society.
Ahmad tries to be Super Muslim, but temptations and disbelievers are all around him. Ahmads mindset is established in the very first sentence, in which he thinks of his schoolmates as devils who are trying to rob him of his faith. A short time later, Ahmad begins thinking of questions, but quickly rejects the questions as the whispers of Satan. The book goes on to explore Ahmads devotion to Islam in greater detail, and as it does so, you begin to realize something: Despite Ahmads efforts to keep Allah at the center of his universe, Ahmad is human. The temptations around him are all very real. You get the feeling that Ahmads extremism is more the result of these temptations and frustrations, and not his devotion.
Updike should also be commended for the obvious research he put into Terrorist. The book is sprinkled with Islamic terms and ideas lifted straight from the sources. The ultimate result is that Ahmads actions and thoughts are perfectly in synch with many of the lesser-known teachings of hardline Islam. Ahmad appears to be a cold character in many scenes, but the author makes it clear that he is just naively following the black-and-white laws handed down to him from Allah and interpreted by his extremist Islamic studies teacher at the mosque. Ahmad clearly wants to have a different attitude in some situations, but he follows a primitive interpretation of Islam which wont let him. This is shown in a scene in which Ahmad goes to a church service after being invited by a girl he knows from school. All in all, Ahmad is presented in such a way that he is a very well-rounded human. We want to hate him, but we cant.
I realize Ive spent a lot of time talking about Ahmad here, but thats because he essentially IS the whole book. Almost every other aspect of Terrorist was filler, and boy does it ever show. Even the main plot feels like it was hastily thrown together as an excuse to string along Ahmads thoughts. The main plot is about a conspiracy of Muslim extremists who want Ahmad to do some dirty work in the name of Allah. Unfortunately, minimal time is spent developing it. So when the climax arrives, it just feels like a massive cop-out.
Updike has famously had a lot to write about sex, but if theres one book in which all the sex feels completely out of place, Terrorist is it. It could have something to do with the fact that outside of the bedroom between husband and wife, sex is arguably Islams biggest dont-ask-dont-tell taboo. In contrast to his devotion to this policy, Ahmads high school friend Joryleen becomes a hooker in a scene that feels forced in, and Ahmads mother and guidance counselor have an affair in an entire subplot that serves absolutely no purpose.
Furthermore, a lot of characters are themselves wasted. Ahmads mother is only there to explain why Ahmad is so devoted, or at least she tries to. Joryleen and her boyfriend Tylenol yes thats his name both make the book longer than it has to be. And I didnt buy into the idea of a guidance counselor who makes regular checkups after graduation, which is what the guidance counselor in Terrorist does. The counselors wife and the wifes sister are minor characters in Terrorist and both are scenery decorations, despite the latter being the one who unearths the conspiracy. When she does learn about the conspiracy, we dont actually get to see it with our own eyes. We hear about it via a phone call. Its laughable. Perhaps Updike didnt want his fans to think he was turning into Tom Clancy.
Despite the magnitude of those complaints, the way the book is written makes them into very minor complaints. What Updike appears to have been looking for by adding so many side ideas is a way to plausibly write a full-length novel about the psyche of a confused kid. I have to admit it was very engaging, and being a former Muslim myself, it was even a little scary how Updike was able to write my previous mindset so well. If you want to get an idea of the way a Muslim would probably think, Terrorist is the book to buy, and not non-fiction books authored by so-called scholars who will give you a one-sided view. Its also the book to get if you want to read something interesting.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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John Updike aims to shape the pastiche portrait of the homegrown terrorist (a la Richard Reid, John Walker, even Timothy McVeigh) into something psychologically rich and artistically profound. A lesser writer would have stumbled into threadbare stereotype, but Updike is up to the task, and his novel about Ahmad Mulloy Ashmawy, an angry 18-year-old who falls under the sway of a fundamental Islamic leader, simultaneously captures the seething rage of the alienated youth, and provides a vivid window into a world of shame, hate, and outlandish schemes that could, eventually, come to catastrophic fruition.