Bookmarks Issue: 
John Updike

A-TerroristLike many high-school seniors in New Prospect, New Jersey, Ahmad Mulloy is uncertain about his future. But with above-average intelligence and good grades, it’s surprising when this son of an Egyptian exchange student (who abandoned the family when Ahmad was three) and an Irish-American nurse informs his guidance counselor that he has enrolled in truck-driving school. But Ahmad isn’t training for a career in interstate commerce; instead, he’s under the tutelage of Shaikh Rashid, a fundamentalist cleric who rails against the demonic West. As young Ahmad struggles against the temptations of American culture and his mixed cultural heritage, he edges closer and closer to committing an act of terrorism.
Knopf. 320 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307264653

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"In no way has he jettisoned the elements that have defined his 21 previous novels: brilliant attention to detail, dexterous writing, a recognition that life and human beings are enormously complicated, and a willingness to write honestly about death, race, sex, class, money, growing old, and God." Deirdre Donohue

Baltimore Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"It is, perhaps, a political statement to depict a terrorist-in-training as sympathetic, even likable. … The novelist calculates, correctly, that readers will make allowances for teens that we never would make for adults." Mary Carole McCauley

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Terrorist is an emotionally daring novel, gripping in its insight into the mind of a boy adrift in life who believes utterly in God, and thus by default in the manipulators who would perpetrate violence in the name of religion. It is also uneven: sometimes dull in its recitation of the author’s research, with a couple of ludicrous plot developments that rob the novel of its ultimate punch." Gail Caldwell

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In addition to Updike’s scrupulous rendering of place, his novel teems with fully realized adult characters in Ahmad’s orbit. … But the trouble with Terrorist is that these people in mid-life who ought to be supporting characters—given the terms of the story Updike sets into motion—prove more compelling than Ahmad or his radical Islamic mentors." Andrew Furman

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The would-be terrorist in this novel turns out to be a completely unbelievable individual: more robot than human being and such a cliché that the reader cannot help suspecting that Mr. Updike found the idea of such a person so incomprehensible that he at some point abandoned any earnest attempt to depict his inner life and settled instead for giving us a static, one-dimensional stereotype." Michiko Kakutani

St. Petersburg Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Somehow, for all the textual accuracy, the book never achieves anything deeper than a rhetorical truth. The characters talk—boy, do they ever talk—but they don’t seem to exist except as mouthpieces for the ideas that Updike says motivate them." Bill Duryea

San Jose Mercury News 1 of 5 Stars
"He hasn’t found a story or a voice adequate to the task. The novel devolves into a page-turner, hurtling toward an ending that, except for a note of ambiguity on the final page, has the sentimentality and sensationalism of a Hollywood thriller." Charles Matthews

Critical Summary

Not only does John Updike write tales of suburban angst; he also has a long history of ruminating on faith. Critics compare his latest novel to In the Beauty of the Lilies and The Coup except that Terrorist has an intensely contemporary flare. It’s almost scandalous to see one of America’s literary lions toying with such an inflammatory topic—and in the guise of a thriller, no less. The litmus test of his success with Terrorist is whether he answers the central question: What drives someone to become a terrorist? Terrorist is exceedingly well researched, and Updike writes beautifully. Still, many reviewers criticize Updike for creating Ahmad as a puppet rather than a character. That a puppet is exactly what his Imam wishes him to be begs the question whether Ahmad is a successful creation or just a thin caricature.