Books June 2006

No Way

John Updike’s latest novel reveals his tin ear for critical times

Ordinary life still manages to go on, as it must. At the high school’s commencement festivities, Jack finds himself in the procession just behind a West Indian teacher (who really does address him as “mon”), who says:

“Jack, tell me. There is something I am embarrassed to ask anyone. Who is this J. Lo? My students keep mentioning him.”

“A her. Singer. Actress,” Jack calls ahead. “Hispanic. Very well turned out. Great ass, apparently … ”

Yes, that’s right: Updike has given us a black high-school teacher who, in the early years of this very century, thinks that J. Lo is a guy. And who is embarrassed to ask more about the subject. And who therefore raises his voice, at commencement, and seeks enlightenment from a sixty-three-year-old Jewish washout. Could anything be more hip and up-to-the-minute? When this Updike feels for a pulse—know what I’m saying?—he really, really, like, feels. Some pages later we find Jack exclaiming, “No way,” and the daring idiomatic usage is explained by his “having picked up this much slang from his students.” The expression was universal long before any of these students was born.

Indeed, Updike continues to offer us, as we have come to expect of him, his grueling homework. The sinuous imam of the local mosque (Shaikh Rashid) does not try to impress the half-educated and credulous Ahmad with the duty to fight the enemies of the Prophet. Far from it. He prepares him for stone-faced single-mindedness with some intricate Koranic hermeneutics, designed to shake his faith. And guess which example is adduced? The theory of the German Orientalist Christoph Luxenberg, who has argued that the “virgins” promised to martyrs in Paradise are actually a mistranslation for “white raisins.” Bet you never heard that! My feeling—call it a guess or an intuition—is that this is not how madrassas train their suicide bombers. My other feeling is that Updike could have placed this rather secondhand show of his recent learning in some other part of the novel.

But where would that be? Almost immediately after Ahmad’s graduation, he is in the throes of a conspiracy that is too ingenious for words. While delivering furniture one day, he drops off an ottoman (get it?) that, when cut open in a sinister Muslim home tenanted only by men, proves to be stuffed with “quantities of green American currency.” The young inductee to terrorism cannot make out the denominations of these non-blue and non-brown notes, but “to judge by the reverence with which the men are counting and arranging the bills on the tile-top table, the denominations are high.” No bill is higher than a hundred, which doesn’t buy you much high explosive these days, but one imagines—if one absolutely must—that a whole ottoman can also hold a goodly number of ones and fives. This novel and risky and cumbersome way of delivering cash only whets Ahmad’s appetite for the more intoxicating suras of the Koran. Before we can catch our breath, he is at the wheel of his jam-packed juggernaut of annihilation (and still registering strip malls and other urban deformities), and is pressing ahead with his desperate plan. Never mind that the plot has been exposed by a cunning last-minute call from the frumpy Washington bureaucrat sister to the impossibly bulbous homebound New Jersey sister. And never mind that this exposure has not led the forces of Homeland Security to close the Lincoln Tunnel. No, stopping Ahmad comes down to the crushed, demoralized Jack Levy, who manages, with exquisite timing, to flag down Ahmad’s truck and climb aboard and talk him out of it at the very last available cinematic second.

After I had sent Terrorist windmilling across the room in a spasm of boredom and annoyance, I retrieved it to check my notes in its margins. In Roger’s Version, I remembered, Updike had described blacks and Jews as the only “magical” people in America. In this sloppy latest effort he becomes more inclusive. Here’s Jack rhapsodizing about Ahmad’s sluttish mama, with whom he has a torrid moment in which this constant reader could not suspend disbelief:

The Irish in her, he thinks. That’s what he loves, that’s what he can’t do without. The moxie, the defiant spark of craziness people get if they’re sat on long enough—the Irish have it, the blacks and Jews have it, but it’s died in him.

This is a fair-enough attempt to push all the clichés about Irish-Americans into one brief statement, and I can only think that it’s put in as some kind of oblique tribute to the New York Fire Department on 9/11. Not for them the fate of the flabby, torpid average Americans, thoughtlessly reaping by their very herdlike existence the whirlwind of jihadist revenge.

When writing In the Beauty of the Lilies, which also opened its action in New Jersey, Updike gave us considerable insight into the Reverend Clarence Wilmot as he endured a full-dress crisis of Calvinist conscience. There was knowledge to be won from the portrayal, and some dry humor, and some imaginative sympathy. A good deal of work on the Presbyterian texts had been performed and was lightly but learnedly deployed. With The Coup, also, Updike had been somewhat in advance of the tremors that he was sensing. But he is now some considerable distance behind the story, giving the impression of someone who has been keeping up with the “Inside Radical Islam” features in something like Newsweek. It could be, I suppose, that he might write better about “exotic religions” if he kept his characters overseas, in their “exotic settings,” and tried to make sense of them there. He includes one more religious set piece in Terrorist, of a charismatic black preacher jiving away at his congregation. Irrelevant to the “plot,” this is justified by the black girl in whom Ahmad is briefly interested. As if to confirm his loathing for American sexual degeneracy, she has a boyfriend-pimp named Tylenol Jones—the sort of name that Tom Wolfe might come up with on a bad day.

The novel’s conclusion is much the same as that of Updike’s New Yorker essay. He looks at the quotidian crowd in Manhattan, “scuttling, hurrying, intent in the milky morning sun upon some plan or scheme or hope they are hugging to themselves, their reason for living another day, each impaled live upon the pin of consciousness, fixed upon self-advancement and self-preservation. That and only that.” Insects, in fact. Ahmad resents them for taking away his God, and, really, one is hard put not to empathize with the poor boy. Given some admittedly stiff competition, Updike has produced one of the worst pieces of writing from any grown-up source since the events he has so unwisely tried to draw upon.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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