THOUGH he has published six books since 2000, John Updike, it seems, really wants our attention. "Terrorist." You knew, sooner or later, he was going to get around to this -- shocks to the American system are an Updike specialty (see, among others, "Rabbit Is Rich" or "In the Beauty of the Lilies"). Now he has tackled the mother of all shocks head-on: the 9/11 era, Muslim rage, the whole megillah.
Five years on from Sept. 11, things have gone off the rails in America, and Updike has located the heart of darkness: the New Jersey city of New Prospect, a ramshackle composite of Newark and Patterson. I don't mean this in just a metaphoric sense: New Prospect, down on its heels (it really should be called "No Prospect") and hollowed out by white flight, is now populated by, ahem, browner-hued citizens, which allows Updike to work every variation on coffee-colored his never-at-a-loss-for-an-adjective mind can muster. (A character has "a square face the color of walnut furniture-stain while it's still sitting up wet on the wood.")
Eighteen-year-old Ahmad is a senior at Central High, a devout Muslim, profoundly unhappy with his teachers ("weak Christians and nonobservant Jews") and repelled by the crass materialism of 21st century American life -- its sights, its smells, its surfaces. Driven by austere purity and righteous disgust, Ahmad tells a pal, "But the human spirit asks for self-denial. It longs to say 'No' to the physical world." Guided by the imam of his local mosque, Shaikh Rashid, "a man slight and slim as a dagger, with a dangerous slyness about him," the bright Ahmad -- he's actually a pretty decent fellow -- is steered away from college, and instead studies for his truck driving license ... you can see where this is going.
As always, Updike has a lot on his mind, but did he have to give us this?:
"Ahmad himself is the product of a red-haired American mother, Irish by ancestry, and an Egyptian exchange student whose ancestors had been baked since the time of the Pharaohs in the hot muddy fields of the overflowing Nile." (Updike is clearly taking his style cues from the handbook of biblical epic-ese.)
Or this? "In their native Pennsylvania, she knows, people could be trusted. A dollar is still a dollar there, a meal a meal, a deal a deal." Oh, there's also a black schoolyard bully/part-time pimp named Tylenol Jones. ("Tylenol Jones"??) Never let it be said Updike doesn't mug up before he takes the plunge: He has devoured a library of Islamic texts -- he knows his imam from his ummah -- and has even taken a spin or two around New Jersey. (Does Philip Roth know Updike is tromping around his backyard?)
Yet "Terrorist" feels flat-out rigged. Updike, leaving middle-aged suburbia for the American inner city, has written something like a teen coming-of-age story, but he wants his "24" moment too and indulges in some gratuitous button-pushing along the way. ("The dozing giant of American racism, lulled by decades of official liberal singsong...") "Terrorist" teems with a collection of grotesques. There's 63-year-old Jack Levy (the unlikeliest Jack Bauer ever), Ahmad's equally miserable guidance counselor, who is shackled to a librarian wife, Beth, who physically repels him: Both are a study in civil servant desperation. Jack slogs on, animated by a "dogged Jewish virtue, the oldest lost cause still active in the Western world." Meanwhile, Beth's barely rendered sister, Hermione, she of the above-quoted plug for Pennsylvania, works for the secretary of Homeland Security and is privy to top-secret information that plays a key role in Updike's contrived plot, which lumbers along to the Lincoln Tunnel. (I don't want to give too much away, but the furniture company Ahmad starts driving for doesn't just deliver furniture, and Homeland Security is onto it.)
In a certain regard, "Terrorist" is an interesting, if failed, thought experiment. A novelist who has said yes, yes, yes to the "world in its sunstruck details, the minute scintillations of its interlocked workings," from the outline of a woman's breast down to the trademark of Rabbit's beloved Toyota Corollas, has shifted perspectives to the disavowing consciousness of Ahmad, through which most of the novel's action is filtered. But unhappiness torments everyone, not just Ahmad. "Terrorist" is one of Updike's periodic audits of American life, and things aren't looking good. "All that's gone," Hermione laments. "We can never be happy again -- we Americans." Jack bristles with antipathies, fronting "the fatal morass of the world -- its dwindling resources, its disappearing freedoms, its merciless advertisements, its preposterous popular culture of music and beer and impossibly thin and fit young females." Alas, such curdled remorselessness is a long way from Harry Angstrom's fizzing, poetic anger in "Rabbit Is Rich."
Still, there are faint glimmers. Updike has a default position that can't be turned off, no matter how much despair he chucks into the works. Despite all that bluster, Ahmad, it turns out, is actually vulnerable to the lure of sunstruck detail. Standing on the water, across from Manhattan as he is being nudged toward his mission by his handler, Ahmad has an epiphany of sorts: "the ozone at the zenith so intense it seems a pit of blue fire, the accumulated towers of lower Manhattan a single glistening mass, speedboats purring and sailboats tilting in the bay, the cries and conversation of the tourist crowd making a dapple of harmless sound around them. This beauty, Ahmad thinks, must mean something -- a hint from Allah...." It's an affirmation out of nowhere; Updike can uncork such pretty-as-a-postcard moments in his sleep, but it's a strangely jarring note in a book otherwise saturated in paint-by-numbers angst
*Price is a journalist and critic in Brooklyn, N.Y.