John Updike: His Novel Evokes Feelings of Sept. 11 Tragedy

As John Updike’s novel The Terrorist opens, his teen-aged protagonist is observing his classmates:

Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my god.

All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, ‘What else is there to see?’ Boys strut and saunter along and look dead-eyed, indicating with their edgy killer gestures and careless scornful laughs that this world is all there is…

Ahmed is a thinker, remarkably observant and serious; he is uneasy in his teen-age world. His friend and classmate Joyleen encourages him to ‘lighten up’, but he resists her advances. In Ahmad’s myopic vision, Joyleen is an ‘unclean infidel.’

Updike has written an evocative response to the Sept. 11 tragedy in New York. It is my favorite of the many novels spawned by the attack. I re-read the book this week, not as a response to 9/11, but as a ‘book of the our times.’ In that sense, I found it thoughtful and to the point—a book about the inner city and the problems faced by young people as they cope with their environment, and to get on with life.

Updike draws multiple of characters, some stereotypical and some unique: the characters include Joyleen, who graduates and becomes a prostitute to support her good-for-nothing boyfriend; Charlie, an inept CIA agent who recruits Ahmed in a Homeland Security sting; Shaikh Rashid, a stereotypical radical imam who is Ahmad’s mentor; and Levy, a guidance counselor who has an affair with Ahmed’s mother. What a cast of characters Updike has brought together in this unlikely novel.

The disaffected Ahmad will seek and find consolation from a cleric Shaikh Rashid, and the stage will be set for a terrorist attack against New York in the style made infamous by Timothy McVeigh in the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995.

In the final chapter of the book, Updike will turn up the tempo of his novel and the novel becomes a psychological thriller as Ahmed drives a McVeigh style truck bomb towards New York with the terrified Levy in the passenger seat.

It is then that Ahmed understands the thought he had at the monologue that opens the book:

[Ahmed looks out the truck window and sees New Yorkers scurrying to work] All around them, up Eight Avenue to Broadway, the great city crawls with people, some smartly dressed, many of them shabby, a few beautiful but most not, all reduced by the towering structures around them to the size of insects, but scuttling, hurrying, intent in the milky morning sun upon some plan or scheme….

These devils, Ahmed thinks, have taken away my God.

The crowds, of course, do not know that a truck bomb is in their midst. Updike still has his skill at 76 years and counting. This is a book is a winner.

Day 72: The Terrorist, John Updike (2006).


In memory of Sept 11, 10 years ago, I wanted to revisit one of the many novels related to the toppling of the twin towers in New York, but I find, on reflection, that 9/11 is not my tragedy. I watched the attack live on CNN, and sat spellbound as the tower burned and collapsed, but I didn’t connect with the tragedy.

Perhaps my sense of tragedy developed early in my life when I was 6 or 7 years old. World War II was raging in Europe and the Pacific and my father left us for the air force. We moved west to a remote coal-mining town where my mother had family.

We were barely settled in when there was a terrible mine disaster–the morning shift of miners went down into the mine and they never came out. That event became my tragedy as the town was engulfed in sorrow.

The world war continued, but the town’s grief continued; it was thick and ever present. Finally, one day the news came via radio that FDR was dead. That seemed to bring the town back to life and collectively they recognized that there was a world outside their sorrow.

Then President Truman unleashed the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and I discovered the second tragedy by radio and movie newsreels (still no TV where I lived)–I was 11 or 12 then.

Five years would pass, I would graduate from high school and enlist in the Navy–and there I was in Japan. World War II took on a different look to me. Who were these Japanese? Why had they attacked us? Was the atomic response justified? Questions an 18 year old cannot answer.

After my tour of duty, I started college on the G.I. Bill and met Muslims for the first time. They called themselves Persians and were refugees from Iran (or was it Iraq). All I remember about them was the smell of exotic spices in their apartments.

Graduating from college, I went west to Seattle,Washington and then South to California. Then, I found myself in Thailand on a government project. Our job was to support the war in Vietnam, but that war seemed far away. There were Muslims in Thailand, their minarets dotted the countryside and calls to prayer could be heard, but this largely Buddhist country seemed to ignore their presence, and so did I.

What then was I to think about the events of 9/11?

It seems that I am not alone in my confusion and lack of knowledge.

John Updike has written a brilliant novel that ranks among the most provocative of his distinguished career. The Terrorist is the story of an alienated American teenager who spurns the materialistic life he witnesses in the New Jersey factory town where he lives (Updike modeled it on Patterwon, NJ). He turned to the words of the Holy Qur’an as expounded to him by his imam and devotes himself fervently to God, but he gets recruited into terrorism. He could easily have been recruited into the Peace Corps to serve in a Muslim country, but he wasn’t.

Updike’s novel raises more questions that it answers, but it is definitely worth reading.


About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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