Well, I didn't hate it. John Updike's newest novel, Terrorist, is getting panned by all the usual suspects, and it's easy to understand why. It's about an 18-year-old high-school Muslim extremist named Ahmad, is structured like a clichéd paperback thriller, and it's packed with efforts to be relevant.
I'm still not sure whether Terrorist actually works. The biggest problem I have is with a couple of teenage African American characters, Joryleen and her boyfriend, Tylenol. Our serious young protagonist, Ahmad, has a serious crush on Joryleen—in one tense scene, he attends a gospel concert at Joryleen's Christian church, against the wishes of his Muslim teachers. Tylenol frequently chases after Ahmad and tortures him, in that high-school way, although with lyrical, Updike curses. "You weird queer" doesn't sound very street, very "hippity-hop," which is a word that Updike unfortunately uses in the course of describing African American music. Joryleen, a gospel-singing high schooler with some prospects, is literally whoring for amateur pimp Tylenol several months after graduation, a thoroughly unbelievable plot twist that occurs solely to shift Ahmad's conservative Islamic beliefs into Fatwa Overdrive.Actually, this book has more problems with women than any Philip Roth novel since Portnoy's Complaint. Ahmad's mother floats blissfully along in a self-satisfied, multi-culti cloud, showing zero single-mom savvy. A guidance counselor at Ahmad's school has a wife who is so fat that soon after she first appears in the novel, asleep, she is announced by the declaration, "The whale is awake."
Most reviewers, though, are slamming Updike for trying to be topical, which is ridiculous. That Updike has written outside his sphere of comfort is not what deserves a reprimand. Neither should he be taken to task for not composing a realistic high-school experience; he is 74 years old. And I don't think it's a stretch to say that he probably sees modern-day America, with its cowboy-idiot president and its terrorists skulking in retail-delivery jobs until they have the opportunity to unleash acts of jihad, as a bad potboiler thriller novel. So that's what he's given us. The world has changed and Updike can't quite change with it. He can only stand and gape.