Mr Down-by-the-Levee

Thomas Jones

  • Terrorist by John Updike
    Hamish Hamilton, 310 pp, £17.99, August 2006, ISBN 0 241 14351 9

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy hates America. He is 18, and lives in a cramped apartment in the city of New Prospect, New Jersey, with his mother, Teresa Mulloy, an Irish-American painter and nurse’s aide. His father, Omar Ashmawy, came to the United States from Egypt to study business, and he and Teresa married soon after they met at the State University of New Jersey. He ‘decamped’ when Ahmad was three. New Prospect is a city in terminal post-industrial decline, a town with no prospects. Ahmad is an intelligent boy and a good athlete: he plays soccer in the winter, and runs track in the summer. He dresses in the same way every day, in a pair of narrow black jeans and a crisp white shirt; he has his shirts professionally cleaned, a luxury he pays for with the money he earns working in a convenience store two evenings a week.

In April 2004, Ahmad is two months away from leaving school. His grades are good enough for him to go to college, but he is planning instead to get a job as a truck driver. This idea has been put in his head by Shaikh Rashid, the imam at the mosque he goes to. The mosque, ‘the humblest of the several in New Prospect’, is at 2781½ Main Street, on the second floor, above a nail salon and a pawnbroker. It used to be a dance studio. Ahmad has been going there twice a week to study the Koran since he was 11. Seven years ago, Shaikh Rashid had eight or nine pupils. Now Ahmad is the only one left.

Ahmad has no friends, no siblings, an absent father and a mother he barely sees. But he is not lonely, or does not believe himself to be lonely, because God is constantly present to him, ‘as close as a vein in his neck’. And it’s not quite right, or not quite fair, to say baldly that he hates America; certainly, he wouldn’t put it that way himself. ‘These devils seek to take away my God,’ is how he expresses it. He has a yearning after purity, cleanliness, simplicity; not unusually for a teenager, he is repelled by the baser urges and functions of his not quite grown-up body; like many adolescents, he despises the shabby compromises, the defeated making-do of the adult world. He watches his teachers ‘scuttling after school into their cars on the crackling, trash-speckled parking lot like pale crabs or dark ones restored to their shells, and they are men and women like any others, full of lust and fear and infatuation with things that can be bought’. But the only person he has to help him contextualise and explain these not so unremarkable feelings is Shaikh Rashid.

In reply to a suggestion made by a school guidance counsellor that ‘a bright boy like you, in a diverse and tolerant society like this one, needs to confront a variety of viewpoints,’ Ahmad says:

‘Shaikh Rashid . . . feels that such a relativistic approach trivialises religion, implying that it doesn’t much matter. You believe this, I believe that, we all get along – that’s the American way.’

‘Right. And he doesn’t like the American way?’

‘He hates it.’

Jack Levy, still sitting forward, braces his elbows on his desktop and his chin thoughtfully on his intertwined fingers. ‘And you, Mr Mulloy? You hate it?’

The boy shyly casts his eyes down again. ‘I of course do not hate all Americans. But the American way is the way of infidels. It is headed for a terrible doom.’

He does not say: America wants to take away my God.

Jack Levy hates America. He is 63, and lives in a modest house in New Prospect with his wife, Beth, a German-American librarian (‘the most extreme thing that ever happened to her was her parents’ refusing to show up at her civil wedding to a Jew’). They have a son, Mark, who lives with his wife and three children in Albuquerque. Waking before dawn, Jack lies in bed beside his overweight, snoring wife, his mind steeped in despair: ‘Fear and loathing squirm inside him like the components of a bad restaurant meal – twice as much food as you want, the way they serve it now. Dread slams shut the door back into sleep, an awareness, deepening each day, that all that is left on earth for his body to do is to ready itself for death.’

So he ‘escapes the marital bed’ and goes to the window to look out, to ‘soak his empty head, too tired to dream, in the sublunar sights of the neighbourhood’: the cars, the urban wildlife, a man leaving his house and driving away. ‘As Jack Levy sees it, America is paved solid with fat and tar, a coast-to-coast tarbaby where we’re all stuck.’ And yet this time that he spends looking out across his own small corner of the country, observing every detail with care and precision – ‘a crow with something pale and long in its beak lazily flaps up from having poked a hole in a green garbage bag’ – makes living in it somehow more tolerable. The implication is not quite that the unexamined life is not worth living, rather that an unexamined world isn’t worth living in. ‘Well, he is still alive, seeing what he sees. He supposes this is a good thing, but it is an effort.’

These two men, or rather this boy and this man, Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy and Jack Levy, are at the centre of John Updike’s new novel. There can’t be many readers who will begin Terrorist without wondering what Updike – white, Protestant, 74 – thinks he is doing, presuming to be able to inhabit the consciousness of a teenage Arab-American Muslim. Michiko Kakutani, reviewing Terrorist in the New York Times, described Ahmad as a ‘completely unbelievable individual’. Amitav Ghosh in the Washington Post said that ‘there is nothing plausible about the characters of this book: only two of them are halfway believable, and they are Jack Levy and Ahmad’s Irish-American mother. It is no accident, perhaps, that neither of them is brown.’ Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic hated the novel for a great many reasons, but prominent among them is the outrageousness of Ahmad’s being ‘the nicest person in the book’.

The vitriol was inevitable, given the politically fraught nature of Updike’s subject. The difficulty isn’t just that Ahmad and Updike don’t have much in common; it’s also that Updike, in the terms of his commander in chief, should be with us, while Ahmad is against us. In reply, Updike might say that, like Terence, he considers nothing human to be foreign to him. And the complex of Ahmad’s feelings towards a girl in his class at school, Joryleen Grant, is persuasively and sympathetically described, as are the edginess and hostility of his fraught exchanges with Joryleen’s aggressive boyfriend, Tylenol Jones (whose ‘mother, having delivered a ten-pound infant, saw the name in a television commercial for painkiller and liked the sound of it’).

In the most literal sense, Ahmad isn’t foreign to Updike at all. As he tells Levy, ‘I am not a foreigner. I have never been abroad.’ He was born and brought up in New Jersey; his first language is English; he can’t read the Koran without a crib. In some ways, perhaps, he isn’t foreign enough: the manner in which he thinks about the Koran, especially, seems to be unmistakeably the product of a mind that takes only an intellectual interest in the book, the mind of someone who is curious, and has done his research diligently, rather than someone for whom it is the bedrock of his most deeply held beliefs.

This imaginative failure is implicitly admitted by Updike, however. More than the story of a rudderless teenager’s misdirected descent into terrorism, the novel is concerned with an older man’s efforts – Levy’s, but also Updike’s – to understand the boy’s motives. Levy and Updike may be out of touch, but at least they realise it. Terrorist does not presume to explain Ahmad so much as try to get to know him. Acknowledging difference isn’t the same thing as resigning oneself to ignorance.

At a time when so much official discourse is directed at merely demonising suicide bombers, defining them as an unknowable enemy, terrifyingly evil but reassuringly other, Updike’s project – to explore a set of circumstances that might explain how an American teenager could find himself driving a truck full of explosives towards New York City with the express intention of killing both himself and as many of his fellow citizens as possible – seems an important one. He may not have any answers, but at least he is trying to ask a different set of questions. What does it say about the United States that within a few months of leaving school, a pair of intelligent, sensitive children like Joryleen and Ahmad have become a prostitute who takes ‘a puff of crack now and then’ and an al-Qaida recruit?

By the time Jack starts to take an interest in Ahmad, it’s too late for him to have much influence over the boy, as he himself recognises. But even if it weren’t, he would still be repeatedly distracted from his mission to persuade Ahmad to go to college, to develop a broader view of the world. Mostly, Jack is distracted by Ahmad’s mother, with whom he ends up having an affair. Updike is distracted, too, apparently unable to help himself sliding away from Ahmad to write instead about middle-aged adulterers – an old familiar theme for him.

Teresa Mulloy cannot see what is happening to her son, the danger he is in. This is partly because he keeps so much of himself secret from her; partly because her job as a nurse’s aide keeps her busy and tired. But it is also because she has stopped paying close attention. ‘I’m trying to work bigger, and brighter,’ she says to Jack, explaining her paintings to him. ‘Life’s so short, I suddenly figured, why keep fussing at the details? Perspective, shadows, fingernails – people don’t notice, and your peers, the other painters, accuse you of being just an illustrator.’ But fussing at the details, for Updike, is precisely what gives life, however short, its point. When the subject changes from her art to her son, she tells Jack that Ahmad’s ‘sheets . . . are unspotted . . . They weren’t always.’ But have the stains really disappeared, or has she simply stopped seeing them?

Jack, unlike Teresa, but like his creator, is a close reader of the world. And so too, despite himself, is Ahmad. If anything gives him a chance of redemption it is this, not his shot at martyrdom. He also, again like both Jack and Updike, and again despite himself, can’t help being distracted by sex. Charlie Chehab, who works with Ahmad at the furniture delivery business where Shaikh Rashid gets him a job after he leaves school and qualifies for his truck driver’s licence, arranges one evening after work for Ahmad to get laid. By implausible coincidence – unless Charlie has planned it all far more carefully than he gives the impression of having done – the prostitute hired for the ‘devirginating’ is Joryleen. They don’t quite manage to have sex, at least not in the strictest sense, and the encounter is in many ways vexed, but it reveals Ahmad to have a capacity for life that his mother has given up on: no detail of Joryleen’s body escapes his notice, all the way down to ‘her toenails – painted plain red, he noticed when she took off her pointy white boots, whereas her fingernails are painted silver and green divided the long way’. The novel’s gaze is unstintingly masculine. We are given access to the thoughts of the main female characters – Beth, Teresa, Joryleen – but unlike their male counterparts, they never quite manage to escape their roles in the men’s lives, or their symbolic significance, to emerge as autonomous characters in their own right.

In many ways Terrorist is not, and isn’t trying to be, a realist novel: each of the main characters is from a different racial and/or religious group – they could almost be referred to as the Young Arab, the Old Jew etc. This suggests that one of the many absences that Ahmad has fallen through is the absence of a community, a point made more explicitly in the juxtaposition of two scenes of worship: the first takes place in the crowded church where Joryleen sings in the choir; in the second, Ahmad is alone with Shaikh Rashid at 2781½ Main Street. It also gives the book the feel of an allegory, or at any rate a fable. The characters’ names are freighted with meaning: Charlie calls Ahmad ‘Madman’; Jack, flirting with Teresa, says his name is Levy like ‘those things that keep the Mississippi from overflowing’, so she, flirting back, calls him ‘Mr Down-by-the-Levee’; she signs her paintings ‘Terry’, and Jack riffs on ‘terry cloth’, ‘terri-ble’, ‘terri-fy’ and ‘Terrytoons’, though not ‘terrorist’ – the novel’s title occurs nowhere in the text. Updike has done this kind of thing before: Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s surname is a very small unit of measurement, used for expressing wavelengths of light, a sign that Rabbit, for all his basketball player’s height, is of vanishingly small importance in the wider scheme of things; the difference here is that Updike sees a need to labour the significance.

The character with the heaviest symbolic burden is Beth, the Overweight Protestant, whose people have been in America almost as long as it has been America. In many ways – addicted to consuming, living in fear of terrorism, but incapable of doing anything about either of them, even when her sister, who works for the secretary of Homeland Security in Washington, rings up in order to talk to Jack about Ahmad (more coincidences, more signs of realism giving way to fable) – she is America. Certainly, Jack’s feelings towards her, a paradoxical combination of irritation, disgust and affection, are pretty much identical to his feelings towards America. He wonders if she had ‘once been as thin’ as the young women ‘in the beer and Coke commercials’, a way of wondering if America was ever coextensive with its myth of itself: the unsurprising answer, to both questions, is no.

If Updike’s fable has a moral, it emerges in the moments when the book is at its least fabular, when the myths collapse under the weight of the mess and variety of the everyday in all its accumulated detail. The world repays careful attention; few writers are as good as Updike at looking at and describing it so precisely. He has done it better than he does here, never better than in the sequence of Rabbit novels, but that this most recent book is by no means his best work does not much matter. He is still writing, seeing what he sees.