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Terrorist Hardcover – Deckle Edge, June 6, 2006

3.5 out of 5 stars 184 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Ripped from the headlines doesn't begin to describe Updike's latest, a by-the-numbers novelization of the last five years' news reports on the dangers of home-grown terror that packs a gut punch. Ahmad Mulloy Ashmawy is 18 and attends Central High School in the New York metro area working class city of New Prospect, N.J. He is the son of an Egyptian exchange student who married a working-class Irish-American girl and then disappeared when Ahmad was three. Ahmad, disgusted by his mother's inability to get it together, is in the thrall of Shaikh Rashid, who runs a storefront mosque and preaches divine retribution for "devils," including the "Zionist dominated federal government." The list of devils is long: it includes Joryleen Grant, the wayward African-American girl with a heart of gold; Tylenol Jones, a black tough guy with whom Ahmad obliquely competes for Joryleen's attentions (which Ahmad eventually pays for); Jack Levy, a Central High guidance counselor who at 63 has seen enough failure, including his own, to last him a lifetime (and whose Jewishness plays a part in a manner unthinkable before 9/11); Jack's wife, Beth, as ineffectual and overweight (Updike is merciless on this) as she is oblivious; and Teresa Mulloy, a nurse's aide and Sunday painter as desperate for Jack's attention, when he takes on Ahmad's case, as Jack is for hers. Updike has distilled all their flaws to a caustic, crystalline essence; he dwells on their poor bodies and the debased world in which they move unrelentingly, and with a dispassionate cruelty that verges on shocking. Ahmad's revulsion for American culture doesn't seem to displease Updike one iota. But Updike has also thoroughly digested all of the discursive pap surrounding the post-9/11 threat of terrorism, and that is the real story here. Mullahs, botched CIA gambits, race and class shame (that leads to poor self-worth that leads to vulnerability that leads to extremism), half-baked plots that just might work-all are here, and dispatched with an elegance that highlights their banality and how very real they may be. So smooth is Updike in putting his grotesques through their paces-effortlessly putting them in each others' orbits-that his contempt for them enhances rather than spoils the novel.
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From Bookmarks Magazine

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.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (June 6, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307264653
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307264657
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (184 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,828 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

John Updike was born in 1932, in Shillington, Pennsylvania. He graduated from Harvard College in 1954, and spent a year in Oxford, England, at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art. From 1955 to 1957 he was a member of the staff of The New Yorker, and since 1957 lived in Massachusetts. He was the father of four children and the author of more than fifty books, including collections of short stories, poems, essays, and criticism. His novels won the Pulitzer Prize (twice), the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Rosenthal Award, and the Howells Medal. A previous collection of essays, Hugging the Shore, received the 1983 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. John Updike died on January 27, 2009, at the age of 76.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a tough call, but on the whole I am giving this novel 4 stars because it successfully held my attention, got me engaged in trying to understand the characters' motives and is beautifully written. Having said that, I want to acknowledge that many of the criticisms leveled here by other Amazon reviewers do have merit, primarily the charge that Updike's characters are often stereotypical. Of interest to me is that, while many reviewers complained about the stereotypes of fat wives, Arab-Americans and single mothers, I didn't notice any comments on the characters of African-American school girl Joryleen and her boyfriend, who is named "Tylenol," of all things. But in any case, since the stereotype issues have been well covered by other reviewers, I'm going to let that go and focus on what I see as the positives of this novel, and there really are quite a few.

For one thing, I like the fact that Updike chose this very difficult topic to write about and also made obvious efforts to understand aspects of Islamic-American culture that are doubtless utterly foreign to him. An author of his standing could just coast for the rest of his career, but this writer chose to stretch himself and try to get inside the mind of a character that represents a far more complex America than that of Rabbit, for example. This is an America that we had all better take a shot at understanding, since this is the one we are living in today, and will have to go on living in for some time to come. Believers in Islam are here and they are becoming an ever more important force in the polyglot US -- AND it is pretty clear that many of these folks are severely disaffected from the mainstream culture.
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Format: Hardcover
Updike's, "Terrorist" is a timely novel. Newspapers and magazines are still full of the ebb and flow of terrorist and counter-terrorist operations. It is difficult for me, and by extension I think of American society in general, to understand why anyone would choose to become a suicide-bomber. Though they are only a fraction of the terrorists they are the most puzzling. So, I bought Updike's latest book on the strength of his reputation as a novelist and the reviews claiming his understanding of the radical mindset.

On the surface the story is about a teenager, Ahmed, who embraces an austere form of Islam. His mother, perhaps feeling guilty about his father's departure, leaves him to his own devices. An intervention is clearly necessary to save Ahmed from his Imam and Updike chooses Mr. Levy, a sixtyish guidance counselor at Ahmed's high school. The story's trajectory predictably puts Ahmed and Mr. Levy together in the truck carrying the bomb.

Scratch the surface though and you find...well, read on.

Ahmed is largely unforgiving, except, illogically, to the father who abandoned him. He is unapologetic, never needing to justify his beliefs to others or even to himself. His isolation and social awkwardness are not the product of his own attitudes, but of everyone else's. In almost every way, Ahmed acts like any teenager, if a bit more radical. And that is the problem. Remove the radical Islamic element from the novel and you have a story of a generic teenager. If Updike is saying that suicide-bombers are just like "ordinary" people, with the same problems and fears, I think he missed the boat. There clearly is a difference. If there weren't, then suicide-bombers would be far more prevalent.
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Format: Hardcover
but I was a bit baffled by this book. For one thing, the writing was so uneven. There were beautiful, evocative descriptions of the New Jersey suburb, and then there was sexual metaphor that reminded me all too well why I avoid cheesy romance novels like the plague.

I know this sounds incredibly presumptuous, but it seemed to me like Updike made a mistake a lot of first time novelists make by not trusting his reader enough. I think anyone who picks up a book like this can be expected to remember which character is obese, which is Jewish, which wears black jeans and white shirts, and which has gorgeous green eyes without it having to be hammered home throughout the book. Quite a few writers out there do seem rather enamored with the color of their protagonists' skin and eyes and so forth, but I for one would prefer more time to be devoted to developing their thoughts, feelings, personalities and motives. Especially motives. If a basically non-violent young man who is not a complete sheep is going to decide to carry out a suicide mission, it needs to be clearer what's going on inside his head. Updike gives us various motives, but none seems strong enough for him to decide to take such a militant course of action.

As reviewers have mentioned the titular "terrorist" winds up being the most likeable character in the book, but he gets this by default. The other characters are inoffensive at best and repugnant at worst. True a character can be deeply flawed and likeable at the same time, but that did not really apply to any of the ones in this book. In fact, I consistently got the feeling that it wasn't really the protagonist who looked down on the Americans around him, it was Updike.
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