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"Terrorist" by John Updike

"I have the American dream — I had a dream of becoming a writer! I was little — not rich, or not anything really, but I did have this hope and faith and it kind of has come true for me. So I wouldn't say the American dream is all hokum.
Not in my case, at least."
—John Updike*

“Writer’s and Company” recently aired an encore presentation of Eleanor Wachtel’s 1996 interview with John Updike. Feeling remiss in never having read even one of Updike’s 60 books — two of them Pulitzer Prize-winners — I went in search of Rabbit, Run.

I found Terrorist instead.

Inside 18-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mully, something terrible is churning. On the surface, he is a high school senior. A solid student. He runs track every spring. And wears a crisp, white, buttoned up shirt every day that does nothing to conceal the contempt he feels for his classmates at Central High School in New Prospect, New Jersey.

Through the lens of detachment, Ahmad observes—and is offended at every turn—by the consumerism, hedonism, and misogyny that he sees in American culture. He rebuffs the outreach of his high school guidance counsellor, his self-absorbed mother and even the girl at school who shows a flicker of interest in his brooding persona. He does have one devotion, however, nurtured by an imam with an agenda, that is an intense spiritualism and study of the Qur’an.

With so little to live for, Ahmad latches on to the promise of paradise. All it will take to get there is one catastrophically murderous act. In a truck loaded with explosives, he drives towards the Lincoln Tunnel. Martyrdom may have to wait, though, when a familiar passenger takes a seat beside him, and begins to wedge a detour of doubt in Ahmad’s way.

Updike’s characters in Terrorist are not the stand-up-and-cheer variety. New Prospect is no suburb of thriving American dreams. Surrounding Ahmad are adults wrestling with their own private despairs. When tested, though, the choice of life, despite its disappointments, is powerful enough to hold the slightest advantage--perhaps the only reassurance Updike was able to offer at the end of a dark tunnel.

*Updike, John. Interview by Eleanor Wachtel. “Writers & Company”. CBC. Encore presentation Toronto: 27 March 2016. Radio.


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