The Plot Against America
But one day Ahmad delivers an ottoman to some Arabic-speaking men at the Jersey shore, and after skulking in the bushes to spy through a window, sees them extract "quantities of green American currency" from its innards--an awkward way to transfer funds, all things considered. He asks Charlie, "Is there a plan developing?" and finds himself rather abruptly--this would appear to be only their third such conversation--a foot soldier in the clash of civilizations, drafted to pilot a truck packed with ammonium nitrate, "twice what McVeigh had," into the Lincoln Tunnel, the pawn in an invisible plot whose details are as obscure to him as they are to the reader. Though the radicalization of a young Muslim in a novel called Terrorist can hardly come as a surprise, Ahmad's evolution from believer to jihadist happens so swiftly, and so imperceptibly, that even he doesn't realize it. "You have expressed a willingness to die for jihad," Shaikh Rashid tells him, announcing the plot to deliver "a mighty blow" to the Americans. "I did?" he replies.
Guidance counselor Jack Levy, meanwhile, makes his own improbable move, into the bed of Ahmad's mother. The two meet twice after Jack takes an interest in Ahmad, and suddenly she's "impaling herself on his erection." While Jack shares his "firm, stout, importunate stalk" with Teresa, his own wife, Beth, "a whale of a woman giving off too much heat through her blubber," stews at home, chatting on the phone with her sister Hermione--the assistant to the Secretary of Homeland Security, a tidy coincidence that enables the occasional dramatic cut to Washington.
The secretary, who says things like "I love this damn country so much I can't imagine why anybody would want to bring it down," is wracked with anxiety over ominous "chatter" indicating a looming attack in the Northeast, worries that Hermione eagerly conveys to Beth via telephone. "Do you remember you mentioned this young Arab-American Jack had taken such an interest in," Hermione asks with alarm one afternoon, who "had gotten a license to drive a truck because the imam at his mosque had asked him to?" And so the strands become one: Ahmad, en route to paradise, his truck bomb aimed squarely at "Satan's heart," is intercepted at a street corner by Jack, who set out--on foot!--to derail the terrorist plot when the FBI could not. Jack, naturally, climbs aboard, and the kid and the old man--the Arab and the Jew--following in the footsteps of our great big-screen interracial buddy teams, pilot the lethal weapon fearlessly onward toward death.
Terrorist is not Updike's first attempt at "post-September 11" fiction; indeed, he may have been the first major writer to borrow a little moral gravity from the collapse of the World Trade Center, dropping Mohamed Atta into a short story four years before Martin Amis's turgid account of Atta's constipation appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Updike's story, knowingly titled "Varieties of Religious Experience," begins and ends with Dan Kellogg, a visitor to New York who watches the towers fall from Brooklyn Heights, just as Updike did. (The first tower crumbles "as abruptly as a girl letting fall her silken gown.") "There is no God," he thinks as he watches the catastrophe unfold, a reaction that was probably Updike's own, just like Kellogg's aborted plan to visit a Wayne Theibaud retrospective at the Whitney. Updike concatenates his own experience of the fateful day with that of a soon-to-be dead man phoning his wife in New Jersey from his smoke-filled office on one of the buildings' top floors; an older woman aboard United 93; and, finally, Atta himself, a week earlier, blending into "this unclean society" by throwing back Scotches at a Florida strip club with fellow hijacker Nawaf al-Hazmi, muttering to himself like a cartoon terrorist about whores and sluts and infidels.
September 11, in this telling, is a crucible of faith (if a sentimental one); Dan Kellogg is stripped of it while Mohamed Atta finds its affirmation in self-immolation. That Updike should view terrorism through the lens of religion should come as no surprise; faith for him is a far more interesting subject of inquiry than politics. "How gorgeously strange the religions of others seem!" he marvels in his 1989 memoir Self-Consciousness, with particular curiosity about Muslims, "the world's outstanding believers these days." "What forms has God taken in their heads," he wonders. "What does Allah mean to them as they surge forward in their Iranian human waves or Palestinian suicide missions?"
Terrorist is Updike's attempt, in his editor's words, "to get inside the skin of a young person drawn to this kind of suicidal attack," while Updike himself has explained in interviews that he wanted to portray "a sympathetic terrorist," to try to understand the situation "from the terrorist's point of view." These pre-publication remarks earned him the ire of right-wing bloggers and columnists, and many of them--the sort who filled their refrigerators with havarti to avenge the Islamic assault on Denmark--will undoubtedly judge Updike deviant from the dictates of "moral clarity," guilty of the unpardonable sin of dhimmitude.
But his sympathetic portrayal of Ahmad is less a political problem than an aesthetic one. Ahmad is infected with Updike's renowned mildness; he pities the infidels instead of hating them, and his desultory condemnations of America lack all conviction. "Your mother used to tell me how you couldn't bear to step on a bug," Jack says to Ahmad, and indeed, he takes care at one point to gently flip over a beetle he finds in a parking lot, struggling on its back with its legs in the air. He even thanks his mother "for putting up with me all these years" before heading off to meet his death--could you ask for a nicer boy?