No Way

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

In 1978, just as I was beginning to become intrigued by the nascent menace of Islamist fanaticism, I read John Updike’s novel The Coup. Set in the fictional African state of Kush, a Chad-like vastness dominated by a demagogue named Hakim Ellelloû, it took its author far from the Pennsylvania suburbs and car lots, and indeed offered, through the hoarse voice of Ellelloû, a highly dystopian view of them. “What does the capitalist infidel make, you may ask, of the priceless black blood of Kush?” Ellelloû asks, and then answers his own question:

He extracts from it, of course, a fuel that propels him and his overweight, quarrelsome family—so full of sugar and starch their faces fester—back and forth on purposeless errands and ungratefully received visits. Rather than live as we do in the same village with our kin and our labor, the Americans have flung themselves wide across the land, which they have buried under tar and stone. They consume our blood also in their factories and skyscrapers, which are ablaze with light throughout the night … I have visited this country of devils and can report that they make from your sacred blood slippery green bags in which they place their garbage and even the leaves that fall from their trees! They make of petroleum toys that break in their children’s hands, and hair curlers in which their obese brides fatuously think to beautify themselves while they parade in supermarkets buying food wrapped in transparent petroleum and grown from fertilizers based upon your blood! Of your blood they make deodorants to mask their God-given body scents and wax for the matches to ignite their death-dealing cigarettes and more wax to shine their shoes while the people of Kush tread upon the burning sands barefoot!

I marked this passage at the time, thinking that I might one day want to refer to it. The two elements that it contains—apart from the actual commingling of oil and blood—are of some interest. The first is a sort of ventriloquisation of Muslim rage, with care taken to give this an element of “social gospel” as well as Koranic puritanism. The second is an intellectual and aesthetic disgust—somewhat reminiscent of the more literary passages of John Kenneth Galbraith’s Affluent Society—with the grossness and banality of much of American life.

This was quite prescient, and it anticipated some of the rhetorical tropes of Muslim self-pity with which we have since become so familiar. Only Monica Ali, in Brick Lane, has caught the same tone of pseudo-socialist populism, and in her novel the crucial speech is delivered after the aggression of September 11, 2001. On that day Updike happened to be looking at Manhattan from just across the river, in Brooklyn Heights, and later described what he saw in a “Talk of the Town” essay in The New Yorker, in which he wrote, inter alia:

Determined men who have transposed their own lives to a martyr’s afterlife can still inflict an amount of destruction that defies belief. War is conducted with a fury that requires abstraction—that turns a planeful of peaceful passengers, children included, into a missile the faceless enemy deserves. The other side has the abstractions; we have only the mundane duties of survivors.

Perhaps feeling that this was somewhat inert, not to say pathetic, Updike then inserted a rather unconvincing note of stoicism, urging his readers to “fly again” on planes, since (guess what?) “risk is a price of freedom,” and issuing what was by comparison a bugle call: “Walking around Brooklyn Heights that afternoon, as ash drifted in the air and cars were few and open-air lunches continued as usual on Montague Street, renewed the impression that, with all its failings, this is a country worth fighting for.” Understatement could do no more: Was it the ash or the absence of cars—or maybe those tempting alfresco snacks—that (America’s manifold failings notwithstanding) straightened the Updike spine?

Taking time to let his manly reflections mature and ripen in the cask, Updike has now given us Terrorist, another vantage point from which to view Manhattan from across the water. His “terrorist” is a boy named Ahmad living in today’s New Prospect, New Jersey, for whom the immolation of 3,000 of his fellow citizens is by no means enough. For him, only a huge detonation inside the Lincoln Tunnel will do. Let’s grant Updike credit for casting his main character against type: Ahmad is not only the nicest person in the book but is as engaging a young man as you could meet in a day’s march. Tenderly, almost lovingly, Updike feels and feels, like a family doctor, until he can detect the flickering pulse of principle that animates the would-be martyr.

Once again, obesity and consumerism and urban sprawl are the radix malorum. At the seaside:

Devils. The guts of the men sag hugely and the monstrous buttocks of the women seesaw painfully as they tread the boardwalk in swollen sneakers. A few steps from death, these American elders defy decorum and dress as toddlers.

Whereas in the schools:

“They think they’re doing pretty good, with some flashy-trashy new outfit they’ve bought at half-price, or the latest hyper-violent new computer game, or some hot new CD everyone has to have, or some ridiculous new religion when you’ve drugged your brain back into the Stone Age. It makes you wonder if people deserve to live seriously—if the massacre masterminds in Rwanda and Sudan and Iraq didn’t have the right idea.”

The speaker in this latter instance is Jack Levy, a burned-out little Jewish man with a wife named Beth (“a whale of a woman giving off too much heat through her blubber”). He has ended up as the guidance counselor at uninspired New Prospect Central High, while his missus piles on the fat in front of the TV. Fortunately, though, she has a sister who works for the secretary of homeland security and who, though she rightly regards her corpulent New Jersey sibling as a moron, keeps calling her up to tell her absolutely everything about the nation’s anti-terrorist secrets. This, too, is fortunate, because although he doesn’t yet know it (the irony!), Jack Levy has a “massacre mastermind” in his own school, right under his nose. (I have just flipped through the book again to be quite certain that I did not make any of this up.)

Young Ahmad, who has an absent Muslim father and a ditsy and whorish Irish mother (who probably has red hair and freckles and green eyes; I hon- estly couldn’t be bothered to go back and double-check that), is quite a study. With such a start in life, who wouldn’t start hanging around the mosque and dreaming of a high-octane ticket to Paradise? Rejecting Jack Levy’s rather diffident offers of help with further education and a career, the bright lad puts all his energies into qualifying to drive a truck. The sort of truck that can carry hazardous materials. In immediate post-9/11 New Jersey, this innocent ploy by a green young Islamist sets off no alarm bells at all.

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.

By John Updike

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