A Jihadist From Jersey
By John Updike
Knopf. 310 pp. $24.95
John Updike's new novel is set in a New Jersey mill town that has fallen on hard times. Once home to energetic, white immigrants from Eastern Europe, this city, New Prospect, has decayed to the point where "those who occupy the inner city now are brown, by and large, in its many shades."
Brown-ness and its discontents are central to the novel, and Updike is acutely aware of the many tints and gradations of this color. The novel's principal character, 18-year-old Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, is from the lighter end of the spectrum, the product of a short-lived union between a red-haired Irish-American and "an Egyptian exchange student whose ancestors had been baked since the time of the Pharaohs in the muddy rice and flax fields of the overflowing Nile." Although Ahmad's color is darker than "the freckled, blotchy pink of his red-haired mother," it is paler than his father's, whose skin is "perfectly matte, like a cloth that's been dipped, olive-beige with a pinch of lampblack in it." Ahmad is, in fact, "dun, a low-luster shade lighter than beige."
It would seem that the lack of a lustrous complexion has played no small part in giving Ahmad a sense of miscegenation, putting him at odds with the world around him: He is "embarrassed by the mismatch" of his dun skin with his mother's freckled pinkness, which "seems unnaturally white, like a leper's." Ahmad's own preference "is for darker skins, cocoa and caramel and chocolate," and these tastes are well served by his inner-city high school, which is a confluence of muddy hues.
At school, Ahmad's gaze is drawn most often to one particular redoubt of brown-ness: Joryleen, an African American with a "smooth body, darker than caramel but paler than chocolate." Although his interest is amply reciprocated, Ahmad gives Joryleen no encouragement, having been warned by his mentor in Islam that "women are animals easily led." Besides, Joryleen already has a boyfriend, Tylenol, who is not just a very precise shade of brown -- "the color of walnut furniture-stain while it's still sitting up wet on the wood" -- but is also a football player and a gymnast. Tylenol is contemptuous of Ahmad: "Black Muslims I don't diss, but you not black, you not anything."
Actually, since the age of 11, Ahmad has been a regular at the local mosque. Having abandoned the family when Ahmad was a baby, his father has played no part in this choice. A free-thinking Bohemian and an amateur artist, his mother has let her son choose his own path, and it has led him into the hands of the mosque's imam, Shaikh Rashid, who is descended from "generations of heavily swathed Yemeni warriors." The heavy swathing has spared the shaikh's ancestors a baking of the kind that fell to the lot of Ahmad's forefathers in Egypt: His complexion is "waxy white."
This hue may also account for the cadences of Rashid's English, which are curiously like those of the predatory Cambridge Arabists of another era. Vaguely effeminate in appearance, he tells Ahmad that he is a "beautiful tutee" and frequently coos the words "dear boy." Ahmad's speech has a different but equally curious timbre: Although he is a native-born American and has never left the United States, he speaks as if he had learned English at a madrassa run by the Taliban. "I of course do not hate all Americans," he says. "But the American way is the way of infidels. It is headed for a terrible doom."
The accent may explain why Ahmad has no friends, despite being bright, polite and good-looking in his "flawless" dun pelt. His isolation, in any event, is complete, and it is the source of his religious and suicidal impulses. When he thinks of God, "alone in all the starry space," he burns with "this yearning to join God, to alleviate His loneliness." His naive but deeply felt religiosity makes him an easy tool for the cynical Rashid, who steers him in the direction of a terrorist cell plotting to blow up the Holland Tunnel. It falls to a teacher at Central High, Jack Levy, a non-observant Jew, to make a last-minute attempt to pull Ahmad back from the edge.
Updike once wrote, "In the strange egalitarian world of the Novel a man must earn our interest by virtue of his . . . authentic sentiments." Authenticity is, to my mind, a tall order for any novelist -- mere plausibility would be enough. But there is nothing plausible about the characters of this book: Only two of them are half-way believable, and they are Jack Levy and Ahmad's Irish-American mother. It is no accident, perhaps, that neither of them is brown.
Updike has clearly been at some pains to familiarize himself with Islam. Not only has he read the Koran carefully, he has also delved into scholarship on the subject. The novel features many quotations from the Koran, in Arabic, with all the scholarly paraphernalia of diacritical marks, etc. Yet the end result is that Updike is unable to cut his brown characters loose from texts, scriptures and ideologies. As for his belief that elaborate descriptions of skin color are a form of insight, it is not wholly without merit, for it does serve to occasionally enliven the prose.
The flow of Terrorist is constantly punctuated with riffs and diatribes on the state of contemporary America, national security, foreign policy, popular culture, technology and so on. Rashid, Ahmad and even the secretary of homeland security are given their say. But their harangues are always delivered in a slightly satirical key, as if none of it really mattered. When the terrorists' arguments are answered at all, it is usually in a register of sardonic and grudging nationalism, by conjuring up images of a past or future America. No one takes the trouble to defend secular forms of justice or government as aspects of the modern world's shared heritage. More puzzling still, no one makes any claims on behalf of that secular realm of expression that permits the practice of such arts as fiction itself.
With innumerable lives at stake, when Jack Levy finds himself faced with the task of giving Ahmad a reason to live and let live, he says: "Hey, come on, we're all Americans here. That's the idea, didn't they tell you that at Central High? Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans; there are even Arab-Americans." Not a word about humanity, family, friendship, sport, poetry, love, laughter.
It is as if a belief in American multiculturalism is the only good reason a human being could have for staying alive. Why indeed do the billions of non-Americans who walk this Earth refrain from blowing themselves up? I suspect that Updike really cannot see that they have any good reason not to. ·
Amitav Ghosh is the author of "The Hungry Tide" and four other novels.