Ahmad Mulloy views the whole American spring-break parade with a coldly appraising eye: the belly chains and pubic-bone tattoos, the bassed-up version of "In Da Club" coming out of the bumping SUV, the drunk girls dropping their cell phones outside of Quiznos. Ahmad, an Irish-Egyptian-American teenager, assiduous Koran scholar, and senior at Central High, sees all and judges all. America, as he sees it, is in an all-night death-dance of consumption, inebriation, and gutter rutting.
His opposite number is an aging, grimly half-grinning Jewish guidance counselor who takes a mysterious shine to Ahmad. Shackled to a hippo-like wife who is trying hard to cut down on her Snackwells intake, the counselor views his multihued high school and its discontents as a living death knell for the America he grew up in. Gone are the idealism of the Sixties and the still-sentient cynicism of the Seventies. This education bureaucrat, a lifelong habitué of New Jersey, adulterer, joke-cracker, and kvell-a-holic, is named Jack Levy, a generically Jewish moniker that tempts the reader to consider it as a stand-in for "Philip Roth."
The fated showdown of these mismatched souls is the substance of John Updike's Terrorist, a melancholy character study that is also a series of Rothian diatribes and, most shockingly, a nail-biter that builds to a wince-inducing climax. (Would you believe me if I said the last book that accelerated this fast in its last 20 pages was written by Dan Brown?) To be sure, Updike is winking at the New Jersey gripe artist who stole his thunder in the Nineties and Aughts, but the engine for the novel's mighty and cold-blooded wrath is one of Updike's oldest and most powerful forebears: the Protestant ironist Nathaniel Hawthorne. Who but Updike would swap out Hawthorne's pastor's robes for a black, medieval-looking burqa?
Both Ahmad and his counselor (and maybe—can we go out on a limb here?—the author) believe that in a time when commercial values trump all else, Americans have turned into silly, sodden pagans, boozily stubbing their toes as they dance around the Golden Calf. It is High Muslim rigor Ahmad mourns, as Levy grieves old-school blue-state sophistication: Martin Luther King, Jack Benny, coherent full sentences. The difference is that Levy, a failed borscht-belt gag writer, does little with his righteous wrath but bellyache and shtup a MILF. It is the younger man who turns his revulsion and lust for purity into a sword.
Updike's mainline Protestant-turned-Muslim ferocity makes Terrorist the most compulsively readable of his novels since 1990's Rabbit at Rest. Without getting hung up on a taxonomy of brand names, Updike paints a fresco of contemporary suburban New Jersey as an icy whirligig of dead souls. And his immersion in Ahmad's yearning for rigor and discipline gives the novel a Taxi Driver-like momentum that's unique for this writer. (Incidentally, Updike, a lifelong film buff, makes several sly references to films from our Bicentennial—including the exploitation classic Massacre at Central High.)
Is Updike suggesting we deserve to have the big one dropped on us? Not in more than a daydreaming way; his heart is with Levy the ineffectual, Levy the deeply uncool, Levy the last rememberer of decent human behavior. But it is not this pot-bellied Mondale Democrat who gets the last word in Terrorist, but Ahmad.