by John Updike
In a 2006 review for the Atlantic Monthly of John Updike’s last novel, Terrorist (which I read for the first time yesterday), Christopher Hitchens claims to have sent the book “windmilling across the room in a spasm of boredom and annoyance.” This, of course, is a lie; not to mention a cliche. Hardbacks can be heavy and destructive — so why are they always flying across the reading rooms of disgruntled critics?
The quibbles which Hitchens raises, however, are accurate enough: the plot of Terrorist is soap-bubble thin, the characters are patched-up hand-me-downs, several of the pop-cultural phrasings are “pitchy,” as an American Idol judge would put it. But what sort of spine, I wonder, has the fluids to spasm in boredom over such trivial failings while reading a book about the hydra-headed Pep-Boys: Manny, Moe and Jack? Or those inflatable attention-getters in front of New Jersey car lots, made of “weirdly lifelike segmented plastic tubes that when blown full of air from underneath wave their arms and jerk back and forth in torment, in constant beckoning agitation.” Rising, falling, and — God bless America, God bless Levitra — rising again like an old man’s member.
With its “Terrorist” title, yes, the book compels lesser minds (and critics) to look for the same facile “explosions of some latter-day, dumbed down thriller” which 64-year-old Jack Levy watches at the movies, still holding his wife’s hand after 40 years of marriage despite the “coldly calibrated shocks of adolescent script mocking their old age.” Like his character — and unlike many reviewers who actually misidentified Terrorist as a thriller — Updike always cared less about the popular projection of life than its flesh and blood texture.
Terrorist is a book about insects and worms and slime trails; about long brown stains from dripping faucets, “oval eyes of dubious toilet water,” crumbling macadam and asbestos, sooty churches, painted-over graffiti, the “rusting rails of abandoned freight car spurs,” cattails in brackish water, gutters “mint-green with age,” dying ad-starved daily papers, plastic flyswatters, Shop-a-Secs, Duncin’ Donuts, Prime Office Suites, 1-800-TEETH-14, shops with tire-flattened styrofoam take-out containers in the driveway, lobster joints with the lobsters “still advertised but no longer served up steaming,” Subaru station wagons with Bondo-patched fenders and “red enamel abraded by years of acid New Jersey air” in another “pathetic attempt to join the easy seventy-mile-an-hour mainstream.”
It’s about the creation one finds in decay — and about Updike’s own decay after 74 years of embodying the golden age of American prosperity (that perfect life-time, 1933 to 2009). Pressed to find the eponymous terrorist in Terrorist, I’d point to a little black beetle lying on its back, a miniature Gregor Samsa with his kicking legs, which frightens a young boy named Ahmed (the least terrorizing character in the book) the day before he, Ahmed (not Gregor-the-Beetle), sets off to blow up another three-headed, American Hydra — the Lincoln Tunnel. Ahmed looks around for something with which to flip the little creature over, like “the dark little cardboard, for instance, used to give the two parts of a Mounds bar integrity, or to reinforce a double Reese’s Peaunut Butter Cup.” Ahmed finally flips the insect over with the very C-class driver’s license he requires to deliver the bomb, but the beetle was already in its death throes, and, upright at last, remains still — “leaving behind a largeness that belongs not to this world.”
Does a mind which reacts to such a brilliantly observed novel, such a fine work of art, by sending it windmilling across a room in annoyance and boredom resemble in some way the mind of a weedy, misguided fundamentalist breaking through the asphalt cracks of America in fits of desecration, or a truckload of explosives? Probably not. But let the idea soak in. “One of the worst pieces of writing since 9/11,” says Hitchens of Terrorist, granting Al Qaeda their calendrical synecdoche (perhaps their greatest conquest of all). Updike died before Faishal Shazad tried to blow up a seventy-mile-an-hour mainstream Isuzu Trooper in Times Square, or before the events that really did change the world on 4/20, but he — as much as Kafka and the greatest of writers — has left behind a largeness that belongs not to this world.