BOMB IN A BOTTLE – September 2006

Terrorist by John Updike

Reviewed by Rima Walker

On August 11, 2006, we woke to news of a thwarted terrorist attack against U.S. airliners flying from England. If it had not been uncovered in time, an estimated 3000 people would have died.  Twenty-four young Muslims were taken into custody before they could board the planes and kill everyone with bottle bombs that looked like soft drinks.

Updike’s trenchant novel Terrorist is about 18-year-old American-born Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, son of an Irish-American mother and a long-gone Egyptian father. Influenced by Shaikh Rashid, the imam of the mosque he attends, Ahmad’s feelings of alienation allow him to become the perfect tool for education into the terrorist way.  He hates his mother’s “social” life, he hates his color which is neither white nor black, and he hates the fact that he cannot have Joryleen, a young, beautiful black woman, even though Rashid tells him that women are essentially evil and unclean.  He longs for a place in which he belongs; the Straight Path is his answer.

Rashid’s diatribes against Americans, their hedonistic behaviors and capitalistic greed, are countered by Jack Levy, the school guidance counselor, a Jew in his 60’s, who tries to take Ahmad under his wing and save him, partly for the youth’s own sake and partly for the sake of Ahmad’s mother with whom he is having an affair. But Ahmad follows Rashid’s advice to learn to drive trucks, including those that carry hazardous materials, and he goes to work for a Lebanese family who own a furniture store. He drives their truck delivering furniture with one of the sons who continues his terrorist education by being his friend and acting like his brother, sucking him further and further into terrorist ideals until he is ripe for the action for which he has been groomed so carefully.  Ironically, when Ahmad is ready, Rashid asks him if he has been coerced into joining the plot.  Ahmad denies it—it is the one thing that that will give him total fulfillment even though he may die if he goes through with it.

Updike’s novel deals with many themes—the crassness of American culture; the clashes among peoples of different faith, skin color, class; the naïve blindness of Americans who continue to believe that they are the world’s chosen people, who continue to feel omnipotent even in the face of one act of terrorism after another.  Have the memories of 9/11, Madrid and London subway attacks dissipated?  Or are Americans for the most part in states of denial? Updike’s characters are a bit flat and sometimes a little stereotyped, but this is a cautionary tale after all.  He tells us about a young boy and how he comes to terrorism.  In the book young Muslims are brainwashed into leading suicide raids to punish those who they perceive to be against Islam so that they can obtain the glories of the afterlife where they will be richly rewarded for their service to Allah.  Jack Levy, the second most significant character in the book, is more well-rounded and believable in his speech and his actions. Nevertheless, the book is more important in terms of its content than in its characters.  Updike’s message, along with that of news analysts and Homeland Security personnel, is that it can happen and will continue to happen.  This is a wake-up call.