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Gods and monsters

In Terrorist, John Updike deftly probes the mind of a boy on the brink of fanaticism

Terrorist
By John Updike
Knopf, 310 pp., $24.95

For all the hosannas or complaints aimed at John Updike, we tend to regard him as the author of a certain kind of novel: gorgeous prose, white-guy existential despair, sex in the suburbs. These are the cliches about Updike, of course, grounded in fact but limited and unfair. In his half-century as a grand master, he has written, sometimes beautifully and sometimes badly, about art, politics, witches, science, Shakespeare, and yes, lots and lots of brightly lit sex. But his greatest and most persistent eloquence as a subject has been faith -- faith in some semblance or possibility of God, faith in the crack of light that defines a day, faith in the presence, joyful or anguished, of the ``inaudible tumult" of the soul. In ``Terrorist," he applies his empathic powers to an 18-year-old named Ahmad -- a high-school senior in the run-down town of New Prospect, N.J. , a quiet boy who used to run track and who balks at killing insects. He is less squeamish, as it turns out, about snuffing out thousands of human lives, particularly when the act seems ordained by Allah and thus a holy deed.

``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. But Updike's ability to get inside the mind of his Ahmad -- to deliver the young man's devotion as well as his fear, uncertainty, and malleable innocence -- is what renders the novel credible and sometimes wrenching in its authenticity.

This will be seen as Updike's post-9/11 novel, and indeed its plot would not exist without the backdrop of that blue, blue September sky, now ``mythic, a Heavenly irony, part of American legend like the rockets' red glare." But it is more accurately a portrait of the sort of mind that saw the fall of the twin towers as a god-driven celebratory act -- a view of American culture from the far rise, where it must look as though Mammon rules a nation built on vulgarity and decadent excess. ``Why do they hate us?" was the common media-hyped cry after 9/11. For anyone who continues to ask that overly simplified question, the cast of characters in ``Terrorist" help explain it.

Ahmad Ashmawy Malloy is the son of an Egyptian exchange student (who disappeared when the boy was 3) and an Irish-American mother, the latter a nurse's aide in New Prospect who paints in her spare time, thankful that her son is such a good boy. Teresa knows Ahmad spends most of his afternoons at the mosque -- a storefront place of worship located above a nail salon and a check-cashing service -- but she sees him as simply following the path of a father he never knew. Ahmad's guidance counselor at school, Jack Levy, is less sanguine: He knows Ahmad is fit for better things than the vocational track his imam has advised him toward, away from the pursuits of a godless Western culture. A depressed 63-year-old Jewish educator, Jack is the sort of semi-hero who epitomizes overtaxed, institutional caring. He wants to help Ahmad, even as he writes ``lc" and ``nc" on the boy's file, shorthand for ``lost cause" and ``no career." But Jack himself needs help, or at least distraction. His wife is so morbidly obese she can hardly get out of her chair to find the remote control. His years in the New Jersey public schools have brought him a few bland victories and a lot of forgotten days; now his outlook is grim and godless, and he believes that the next thing on his to-do list is his own death -- a task that settles above his face at 3 a.m. ``like a cobweb with a motionless spider in its center."

The struggle, then, the real agon, will be between Ahmad, with his merciless but glorious God (and dark misinterpreters), and Jack, with his secular humanism and his burned-out hopes. Their supporting characters round out a cast of the ill and misbegotten: Ahmad's imam, a Yemeni of suspect belief to whom Ahmad gives respect if not affection; a young black girl named Joryleen whose life is a mess of inner-city hopes and iniquities -- she sings in the choir and pimps on the side at her boyfriend's behest. Following the diktat of his imam, Ahmad gets a job driving a truck for a Lebanese father-son team who own a furniture company; Charlie, the younger Chehab, accompanies him on their deliveries and peppers him with ideology about the scourge of the West. Jack has given up on the boy and his mother has barely noticed him in years, and Ahmad's chief solace is the Koran, however mangled by his teachers into a text of cruelty and religious vengeance. So Ahmad is a disaster waiting to happen, and it belongs to the riveting plot of ``Terrorist" to show us just how and when that day will appear.

What propels this novel beyond a suspense-driven blow-'em -up story is Updike's usual grace with form and content, most particularly his depiction of Ahmad -- his querulous inner life, his ``scaffolding of straws" that so desperately needs an architect kinder than his spiritual teachers. Poised there on the cusp of adulthood, with his crisp white shirts and his crush on Joryleen, Ahmad is a mix of wisdom and naivete, ripe for conversion or for any plan beyond his own untethered fears: This is the chapter in life, depending on circumstance, where a kid can wind up in law school or the Marine Corps or a storefront mosque with a hidden agenda. ``We seek attachments," Ahmad tells Joryleen, ``however unfortunate." When his attachment arrives with a truck and an instruction sheet, Ahmad feels God has shown him the passage into heaven.

And because this is Updike, ``Terrorist" has more than a few moments where the banality of ordinary life meets the banality of zeal -- where sex, for instance, shows itself to be neither sacred nor profane, and where the righteous ideology of terrorism is no match for good old common sense. During one of his imam's harangues about the depravity of the West, he queries Ahmad about what he witnessed on his deliveries in and around New Prospect: ``Did you not discover that the world, in its American portion, emits a stench of waste and greed, of sensuality and futility ?"

Ahmad stumbles, then answers as best he can. ``People are pretty nice, mostly."

Quite so, though that's hardly the answer a self-appointed flaming messenger of God wants to hear. In ``Terrorist," Updike has given us a story frightful in its collision between chance and fanaticism -- between a boy looking for a dad and a life, and a world that wants to deny him, and a lot of others, the possibility of either one.

Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at caldwell@globe.com.

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