A Tell of Terror at Home

Here’s a catch-22 for the modern age: How do you get inside the head of a suicide bomber? If you’re John Updike, you set your 22nd novel in Paterson, where six 9/11 hijackers, including Hani Hanjour, the pilot of the plane that flew into the Pentagon, lived in the spring of 2001.

Updike’s story is told from the point of view of Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, a devout Muslim son of an American-born nurse’s aide and an absent Arab-American father. Ahmad, a bright, serious senior at Central High School in the downtrodden manufacturing town fictionalized as New Prospect, seems to be on track for academic success. Instead, he takes a job as a truck driver with a local furniture company owned by Lebanese immigrant Habib Chehab and his son, Charlie.

As Ahmad and Charlie ride together in the truck, making deliveries from Summit to Camden, they strike up a friendship, with the chatty Charlie giving lectures on everything from getting a girlfriend to Revolutionary War sites at Monmouth Battlefield, Morristown, Trenton, and Middlebrook. “The thing about New Jersey was,” Charlie says, “the British wanted it to be a model of pacification—winning hearts and minds, you’ve heard of that. They saw what they did on Long Island was counterproductive, recruiting more resistance, and were trying to play nice here, to woo the colonists back to the mother country. At Trenton, what Washington was saying to the British was, ‘This is real. This is beyond nice.’ He showed the world what can be done against the odds, against a superpower.”

Ahmad seems oddly detached from the terrorist plot swirling around him. But his wanderings eventually attract the attention of the Office of Homeland Security, where Levy’s sister-in-law works. The book’s plot is impossible to predict, largely because the characters are filled with contradictions and don’t seem to know what they want.

Does Updike succeed at getting inside the head of a terrorist? Probably as much as anyone ever will.

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