Sunday, July 27, 2008

Terrorist by John Updike

Updike is one of my favorite authors of all time. I have 323 books by, about, or containing a work by him and literally thousands of magazines in which he has appeared. The fact that I have not read anything, except magazine appearances, by him in a while desperately needed remedying. I will not be away so long again.

No one writing today can fashion and shape language the way John Updike can. To me, he is The Master wordsmith of the last fifty years. His essays, his book reviews, his poetry, his short stories, and his novels spin webs of incredible beauty with deep insights and characters as finely drawn and accurate as any ever written. His prose is so graceful, the reader is carried along to places never visited, to characters never met, to situations unimaginable, with the ease of an early morning walk as the eastern sky grows pink and a soft breeze cools the face.

Terrorist is such a story. The reader is taken on a ride in a truck driven by a misguided, manipulated young man, who is determined to wreak vengeance on people he does not know, because he has been convinced the strangers he kills have stolen his God.

Early in the novel, the third-person narrator reveals something about the angry young man. Updike writes:

"Ahmad knows it is a sin to be vain of his appearance: self-love is a form of competition with God, and competition is what He cannot abide. But how can the boy not cherish his ripened manhood, his lengthened limbs, the upright, dense, and wavy crown of his hair, his flawless dun skin, paler than his father’s but not freckled, blotchy pink of his red-haired mother and those peroxided blondes who in white-bread America are considered the acme of beauty?” (18).

In the unlikely event that nothing else happens while reading this novel, it will force any one with a shred of heart or soul to closely examine our culture, what it values, and how we treat each other.

Updike also anoints unlikely characters as heroes in the epic sense -- disillusioned, semi-failed, lost souls searching for some light at the end of the dark tunnels which are their lives. At first, these individuals seem to be mere dressing, a bit of bright ribbon on a dull coat or shirt. But Updike brings them along with the reader, and in the end they all find something, even if it was not what they were seeking.

In the early pages of the novel, I felt a bit frustrated because of the many Arabic words and phrases which were not translated. Only a few could be worked out from the context; however, as I read on, I realized Updike was deliberately wrapping Islam in a shroud to keep it as mysterious as it is in real life. How can we understand the anger, the hatred of the fanatical jihadist who believes in a God that will welcome a martyr with 72 “houris” at the instant of death. They believe this God is as close to them as the veins in their necks.

I don’t pretend to understand any of this after reading Terrorist, but I could feel the anger, the hatred, and the devout belief in a religion that promises the best of everything after a life that offers the worst of everything. This is the same message which fixed the grip of the Catholic Church on the hapless, ignorant peasants of the Middle Ages. The scary thing is these characters are not ignorant and not hapless. Perhaps that is the greatest danger of all. A perfect novel! Unqualified five stars.

--Chiron, 7/27/08

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