Document created: 18 December 06
Air & Space Power Journal Book Review - Spring 2007
Terrorist by John Updike. Alfred A. Knopf (http://www.randomhouse.com/knopf/home.pperl), 1745 Broadway, New York, New York 10019, 2006, 310 pages, $24.95 (hardcover).
When I heard a radio interview featuring novelist John Updike talking about his new novel, Terrorist, I was immediately intrigued. I’m a fan of fiction who enjoys its capacity to entertain and teach. Yes, teach—by giving readers the opportunity to walk in somebody else’s shoes. I was especially drawn to this novel because of what it might teach me, an Airman, about our new enemy—the terrorist. I vividly recall the sense of disequilibrium I experienced after 11 September 2001, when I learned that terrorists had purposely flown civilian airliners into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Processing this horrific news, I joined the masses who asked “Why?” Why were those terrorists willing to sacrifice their own lives—and take the lives of innocent others? In its own way, Terrorist attempts to address those questions. Indeed, early on, a character asks, “Those people out there. Why do they want to do these horrible things? Why do they hate us?” (p. 48). In an interview appearing in the New York Times on 31 May 2006, Updike remarks, “I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system. Nobody’s trying to see it from that point of view. I guess I have stuck my neck out here in a number of ways, but that’s what writers are for, maybe.”
Terrorist follows Ahmad Ashmay Mulloy, a recent high school graduate in New Jersey. Encouraged by his Moslem teacher, he considers carrying out a terrorist attack. Ahmad—who is likeable, respectful, moral, and bright—seems to have everything he needs to succeed. He comes across as an “Everyman”; indeed, his commonness is one of the characteristics I enjoyed most about this novel. Updike allows the reader to get inside the head of a terrorist and see him not as a madman but as an Everyman who confronts a disturbing question that arises in a seemingly innocuous conversation with a Moslem mentor—“Would you give your life?” (p. 189).
I found no polite consensus on Terrorist among other reviewers. For example, in his assessment in Booklist magazine, Brad Hooper calls it “marvelous,” labeling the book a “masterpiece for its carefully nuanced building up of the psychology of those who traffic in terrorism.” Yet Benjamin Anastas, writing in BookForum magazine, dismisses it as “awful.” My reaction falls somewhere between those two extremes. Parts of it felt too contrived for my tastes. For example, Updike seems overly provocative by making Ahmad’s high school guidance counselor a Jew. Furthermore, the book’s climax works itself out too simplistically. It let me down.
Regardless, I thought that Terrorist was worth my time, and I endorse it. I don’t mean to overstate its merits for purposes of “understanding the enemy.” After all, Updike does not offer us an intelligence analysis, a psychological treatise on a terrorist’s state of mind, or an academic exploration of radical Islam. Rather, he provides an interesting and entertaining—albeit fictional—glimpse into how a terrorist’s reasoning processes might work. That’s important during a time when thousands of American and coalition service members are putting their lives on the line against real, live terrorists.
Maj Roger Burdette, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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