From Terrorist :
Charlie is asking him a question, "Would you fight them, then?"
Ahmad has missed what "them" refers to, but says "Yes" as if answering a roll call.
Charlie appears to repeat himself, "Would you fight with your life?"
"How do you mean?"
Charlie is insistent; his brow bears down. "Would you give your life?"
The sun leans on Ahmad's neck. "Of course," he says, trying to lighten the exchange with a flicking gesture of his right hand. "If God wills it."
Ahmad comes from a broken home, the product of a marriage between an Egyptian man with committment issues and an Irish-American mother who struggles to support them. Despite his love for his mother, it's his father who seems to hold the key to his identity. He turns to Islam as a way of reconnecting with his lost father, and comes under the control of an extremist who convinces him to join the jihad and fight the Americans with everything he has, including his own life.
Not a popular kid in school, Ahmad is pushed around a lot. He's bullied and taunted with the nickname, "Arab," which only fuels the fire, leading him to think of Americans as brutish infidels. The stage is set for a terrorist.
Jack (Jacob) Levy is the high school guidance counselor with a generous heart and an unfulfilling home life. He seeks comfort with Ahmad's mother, a much younger woman, partly to escape the frustrating nature of his work, and partly because his own wife, Beth, has grown so fat they no longer have any intimacy between them. Because he is around Ahmad's home so often, Jack becomes suspicious that something's up. He has a feeling Ahmad's headed down a path to destruction, and he's desperate to make sure that doesn't happen.
It's an interesting irony that Updike chooses to use a Jewish character in this role, considering the two cultures are such enemies today. Jack is a lapsed Jew, having lost his faith long ago. How different he is from Ahmad, who is trying so desperately to hold onto his own faith, to follow the "Straight Path," despite all the temptations of modern American life. Yet, Jack feels such a connection to the boy. He can't just sit back and watch him ruin his life, because he knows what potential Ahmad truly has.
On the whole, Terrorist is somewhat of a lukewarm book. The intent was obviously to get into the head of a Muslim-American young man and show the conflict between enjoying the freedoms and comforts of American life while, at the same time, dealing with a somewhat impotent sense of rage at what's happening to the Muslim people. However, it does so almost half-heartedly, which really doesn't lend itself to the sort of passion behind the subject matter. Terrorists and terrorism are anything but lukewarm.
Perhaps that was Updike's message, though, that so many would-be terrorists are just kids, like Ahmad, who don't really feel burning hatred. They fall under the spell of others who push them into giving their lives for a cause they don't fully understand. They give lip service to the cause, but when it comes down to it they don't really fully understand any of it at all. Spoonfed ideas about duty, as well as a hatred of all things Western, they're very easily led. Frighteningly so.
We do get a sense of the feelings of guilt and conflict Ahmad goes through, but somehow it seems the book just misses making that emotional connection with the reader. Or at least it did with this reader. I suppose I was just expecting a little bit more.
Overall, it's a good read. I'm just not sure it fully lived up to its title, or made the impact it could have. The question may be, are we just too weary of the topic of terrorism and terrorists, and did Updike jump on the bandwagon just a bit too late, and with a bit too little passion.