If Claire Bloom's lamentable memoir, Leaving a Doll's House, is to be believed, then there was a time not too long ago, thirteen years ago to be exact, when a lukewarm review by John Updike in the pages of the New Yorker could send her then-husband, Philip Roth, straight into the arms of the adult acute-care ward at Silver Hill Psychiatric Hospital. In the intervening thirteen years (a barmitzvate, if you will, to borrow a trick from the more preening of the pair), the balance of power between the two novelists reversed; where once Roth seemed to be playing postmodern mirror games to diminishing returns while Updike subsumed the American experience, decade by decade, with his Rabbit novels, now it is Roth who has seized a claim on the collective unconscious with his eerily prescient later output, while Updike seems to be sliding into irrelevance, playing out the season like the Knicks' fastidious but increasingly unreliable head coach, Larry Brown. Updike has veered wildly in his recent writing, from family epic to science fiction to a quasi-feminist Hamlet prequel to a collection of short stories animated by sexual nostalgia to minor curiosities like Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf. Fifteen new titles for the trophy shelf in just thirteen years—how's that for going un-gently into the good night? But in the meantime, Roth, the wily long-distance runner, has traded in the distractions of his actress for solitude and, his eyes transfixed by a finish line only he could conjure, left poor Rabbit Angstrom—dreaming up descriptions of body parts that used to tremble when he touched them, just as he trembled at the sight of every tufted godhead that blessed him and beckoned him to enter—in the dust.

Too much art for the matter at hand, I know—but this has always been Updike's problem. Why say the light is fading at the end of the day when you can stop the reader cold by trotting out crepuscular? Why write sex plain when you can linger and portray it badly, as Updike does in his new novel, Terrorist: "Terry's paintings and their fragrances of thinner and linseed oil embower Jack and his mistress. As she said, she is working bigger and brighter. When in fucking she sits on his lap, impaling herself on his erection, he feels the colors reflected from her walls flow down her sides along with his hands, her elongating, rib-filled, preening, Irish-white sides." Jack Levy—one of the embowered adulterers in the scene—is a guidance counselor at Central High School in New Prospect, NJ, an urbanized northern township degraded by poverty and sprawl, poisoned by chemicals, and threatened by chatter of a terrorist attack. Teresa "Terry" Mulloy, the Sunday painter, is a nurse's aide and single mother whose only son, Ahmad, is half-Egyptian and studies Arabic with a local imam to better devote himself to Allah. Jack takes an interest in Ahmad when the imam, Shaikh Rashid (his skin "a waxy white shared with generations of heavily swathed Yemeni warriors"), convinces him to study for a commercial driver's license instead of going to college. "Until you're twenty-one you can't drive out of state," Jack argues to no avail, impressed by Ahmad's intelligence and composure. "You can't carry hazardous materials." Instead of changing Ahmad's mind, Jack betrays his wife, Beth ("a whale of a woman"), and violates "his dogged Jewish virtue" for the chance to visit Terry in her studio and see "her Irish ass, never kissed by the desert sun, jiggle." Throw in a schoolyard pimp named Tylenol Jones and his girlfriend, Joryleen Grant, a choir singer turned prostitute; a Lebanese furniture dealer, Charlie Chebab, who has a shady uncle and the gift of jihad-laced gab; and a stoic secretary of homeland security who says "Pardon my French" when he swears and breaks into soliloquies along the lines of, "My trouble is, I love this country so much I can't imagine why anybody would want to bring it down." These are the ingredients of Terrorist, although a more fitting title for this sour and disheartening grab for a piece of the ballooning War on Terrorism budget might be The Plot Against the Plot Against America. And if I haven't made myself abundantly clear with the only plot description you're going to get from me: This book is awful.

Updike is always at his worst when he goes slumming for material—who can forget the holy-rolling black revolutionary Skeeter from Rabbit Redux?—and Terrorist is remarkable for being densely populated with the kinds of characters that he has never done well. Ahmad, though born and raised in New Prospect by an Irish Catholic mother, speaks in the dry, formal English of a non-native interpreter, as if his voice were being broadcast over a video clip from Al-Jazeera. His religion, too, seems piped in from outside sources, an amalgam of quotations from the Koran and a general worldview that boils down to President Bush's mantra "They hate us for our freedom." Jack wears his Jewishness like an ill-fitting mask with a hook nose and a crepe-paper yarmulke; there is a weariness to the performance that goes with the costume's slapdash quality, as if Updike had been out trick-or-treating with the grandkids too long and grew tired of shouting "Oy vey!" at every doorstep. The women in the novel are all lesser Updike muses—including the "mick" seductress Terry—meaning they flicker in and out of life based on the television show they're watching, their state of undress, and whether or not they're in the mood.

"These devils . . . have taken away my God," Ahmad thinks at the end of the book, his suicide bombing thwarted by a kindly caricature (OK, I will reveal that much). As the light grows crepuscular over an unstable world that eludes Updike's imaginative powers, his readers will put down Terrorist—if they ever complete it—and wonder who the devil took away their favorite author.

His name is Roth.

Benjamin Anastas is the author of two novels, An Underachiever's Diary (Dial, 1998) and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor's Disappearance (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001).

 
     
     
 
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TERRORIST BY JOHN UPDIKE. NEW YORK: KNOPF. 320 PAGES. $25. BUY NOW