Nice Terrorist |

TBC Staff

In 'Terrorist,' a Cautious Novelist Takes On a New Fear [Excerpts]

For [John Updike's] new novel, "Terrorist," he ventured onto the Web to research bomb detonators. He was fairly certain, he remarked recently during an interview in Boston, that the only detonator he could recall -- the one that Gary Cooper plunges in "For Whom the Bell Tolls" -- must be out of date, but he was also reassured to discover, as he put it, that "the Internet doesn't like you to learn too much about explosives."

And he hired a car and a driver to take him around some of the seedier neighborhoods in Paterson, N.J., and to show him some churches and storefronts that had been converted into mosques. "He did his best, but I think I puzzled him as a tour customer," Mr. Updike said.

"Terrorist," which comes out from Alfred A. Knopf next week, is set in Paterson -- or, rather, in a slightly smaller, tidier version of the city, called New Prospect -- and is about just what the title says. Its protagonist is an 18-year-old named Ahmad, the son of a hippie-ish American mother and an Egyptian exchange student, now absent, who embraces Islam and is eventually recruited to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel.

Mr. Updike, who confessed to a mild phobia about tunnels, said the image of an explosion was actually the inspiration for the book. "That picture was the beginning," he added. "The fear of the tunnel being blown up with me in it -- the weight of the water crashing in."

Originally, though, he imagined the protagonist as a young Christian . . . . When Mr. Updike switched the protagonist's religion to Islam, he explained, it was because he "thought he had something to say from the standpoint of a terrorist."

He went on: "I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system. Nobody's trying to see it from that point of view. I guess I have stuck my neck out here in a number of ways, but that's what writers are for, maybe."

He laughed and added: "I sometimes think, 'Why did I do this?' I'm delving into what can be a very sore subject for some people. But when those shadows would cross my mind, I'd say, 'They can't ask for a more sympathetic and, in a way, more loving portrait of a terrorist.' "

Ahmad is lovable, or at least appealing; he's in many ways the most moral and thoughtful character in the entire book, and he gains in vividness from being pictured in that familiar Updikean setting, the American high school (McGrath, "New York Times, 5/31/06).

[TBC: The reviewer considers Updike's terrorist "in many ways the most moral and thoughtful character in the entire book." That he is contemplating the death of many apparently does not detract from the character of a terrorist. Updike, who has been called "an upscale pornographer," presents a superficial and often positive caricature of Islam which hardly intersects with the truth. In contrast, Updike referred to 2 non-Muslim characters in his novel: "I liked those two because they're normal, godless, cynical but amiable modern people."]