John Updike once savaged Tom Wolfe for writing glib, pandering "entertainment," but stretches of Updike's new novel Terrorist read like his version of Wolfe's what's-the-matter-with-kids-today bestseller I Am Charlotte Simmons. Updike's book is about American teenager Ahmad Mulloy, who devotes himself to Islam in honor of his absentee Egyptian father, and accidentally winds up embroiled in a suicide-bombing plot; his cynical old high-school guidance counselor Jack Levy may be the only person who can save him. Whenever Updike describes Ahmad's disgust with the overripe sexuality and materialism of American culture (or Levy's disgust, for that matter), it's easy to hear Updike's cranky voice behind the grumbling, and just as easy to hear echoes of his Rabbit Angstrom series whenever he gets into the details of Levy's joyless, sexless, godless marriage.
Updike is one of America's greatest living writers, and Terrorist has its share of brilliantly crafted passages. When Ahmad visits the church of a black classmate he likes, Updike's zesty description of evangelical fervor reaches a fervid pitch of its own, and his extended riffs on TV soap operas and airport security have the ring of a keen cultural observer who's eager to vent. But just as often, Updike relies on pat pop stereotypes, like the black thug whose mother named him Tylenol because she liked how it sounded in the commercials, or the corpulent Mrs. Levy, who's too lazy to pick up a remote when it falls off her shortened lap. Updike can also never quite get a handle on Ahmad, who grew up in New Jersey, but improbably talks like a foreign-exchange student, and cozies up to the idea of being a suicide bomber unbelievably quickly.
Terrorist remains fairly riveting in spite of its lapses, because of a loosely dialectical structure that has Ahmad bouncing ideas off Levy and a worldly Lebanese confidante named Charlie. In those conversations, Updike gets to the crux of the differences between Islam and the liberalized, permissive Western culture that gives haters room and reason to grow. Primarily, Updike seems to argue that martyrdom is best left to the young, who are still dumb enough to believe in purity, and don't yet know about the inevitable compromise that comes with starting a family and making a living. Beneath Terrorist's flabby social commentary and ludicrous plot, there's a heartbreaking sketch of how religious faith either dies, or evolves into a perversion of whatever ideal it was supposed to espouse.