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Newsday, 11 June 2006

TERRORIST, by John Updike. Knopf, 310 pp.
A reviewer should have the courage of his confusion. So let me waste no time in indicating the variety and depths of my dismay regarding Terrorist, the new novel by John Updike.

It is artful, but a real mess. It evokes the credit card-thin spiritual trashiness of contemporary American culture, and why this might make Islamic fundamentalism appealing to a lost soul. Yet the narrative line (which knots itself up through several indulgences in the extreme short-cut of coincidence) is hardly better than that of a TV movie.

Sentence by sentence, it is another breathtaking manifestation of the author's gifts. But certain elements of the fictional architecture -- its setting in a New Jersey city gone to seed, for example, or the major character who is a middle-aged Jewish schoolteacher -- leave the impression that Updike won them in a poker game with Philip Roth.

And most puzzling of all, there is the question of timing and texture. In various ways, all obvious enough, it can be called a post-9/11 novel, with characters who work to bring jihad to American soil, and sundry references to life in the age of Homeland Security. And yet all these elements of contemporary circumstance somehow feel like ornamentation, or surface detail - if not, indeed, distractions from whatever is really on the author's mind.

In his first novel, Poorhouse Fair -- published in 1959, when he was in his 20s -- Updike avoided the usual coming-of-age story by making his characters elderly. With Terrorist, he is again peering through the imaginative telescope: It opens with the thoughts of an American teenager, Ahmad, who is finishing his last semester of high school in New Prospect, N.J. His mother is a painter, unsuccessful but determined; his father, an Egyptian who, one surmises, grabbed the chance at a green card but did not stick around long.

Ahmad has found a substitute for paternal authority. He rejects Mom for the Imam. And in the course of his after-school studies of the Quran, his faith proves tougher and fiercer than that of his spiritual leader, who "seeks to soften the Prophet's words, to make them blend with human reason, but they were not meant to blend: They invade our human softness like a sword."

A book called Terrorist is naturally going to permit only a very narrow distinction between levels of plot -- narrative and conspiratorial. Without giving anything away, I will say only that Ahmad's preparation for martyrdom is ambivalent. He has a powerful will to simplicity: "The world is difficult, he thinks, because devils are busy in it, confusing things and making the straight crooked." But the devils are also busy inside him.

The plot to unleash violence is in some ways only the armature of the novel, if not its pretext. The teenager is a link bringing together other characters, most of them much older than he -- with the consequence of those connections being, in one case, adultery. That narrative strand somehow proves of greater emotional consequence than Ahmad's effort to bring the cleansing fire of divine wrath to the United States.

None of the characters are opaque to the book's narrative voice. It moves in and out of their consciousness, or prods them to speak their minds at some length, with what is sometimes greater eloquence, introspective nuance, or command of historical factoids than seems quite credible.

And quite a few of these monologues concur with the Muslim-fundamentalist rage at the American empire of the senseless. The country is populated, Ahmad says, by "slaves to drugs, slaves to fads, slaves to television, slaves to sports heroes that don't know they exist, slaves to the unholy, meaningless opinions of others." A teacher at the high school sounds much the same in describing his students: "They think the human mind is on eternal holiday, and from now on has nothing else to do but absorb entertainment.

Other passages echo these sentiments - the most memorable being several pages of well-turned rant about TV commercials. There is a particular intensity of cold rage expressed at a woman in an ad for an erectile-dysfunction pill, "looking, you know, all kind of misty and smug and sexually satisfied."

Now, the roaring vacuum of U.S. mass culture deserves no defense. Ten minutes of reality TV is enough to make The Decline of the West look cheerful. Still, given a choice between Sharia law and Levitra ads, one tends to notice a few values worth preserving in even so debased a public sphere as this one.

In Terrorist, the closest thing to transcendence (apart from the suicide mission) is a rather trivial-seeming affair between two characters -- a romance that suddenly becomes central to the book only after it is over. Updike is, of course, our epic poet of private life. But he might have created a richer novel by trying to imagine something beyond it.