Discursiveness, coincidence and a barely credible surprise ending compromise, but do not critically impair, Updike’s intriguing 22nd novel: a scary portrayal of uptight, perpetually imperilled post-9/11 America.
It’s set in Prospect, N.J., where high-school senior Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy (son of an Egyptian exchange student father and an Irish-American mother)—a self-declared “good Muslim, in a world that mocks faith”—quietly distances himself from the future his education and culture appear to promise. During the summer of 2004, Ahmad rejects the idea of college (despite the promptings of his guidance counselor, “lapsed Jew” Jack Levy), acquires a commercial driver’s license and finds employment driving a truck for a Lebanese family (the Chehabs) who own and operate Excellency Home Furnishings. Up until the “mission” for which fast-talking, seemingly Americanized Charlie Chehab has prepared Ahmad is undertaken, Updike does what he does (a) best: paints a densely detailed picture of complacent, overindulgent, morally befuddled urban America—while simultaneously demonstrating persuasive mastery of the scriptures Ahmad worships; and (b) worst: burdens the narrative with urgent sex (Jack’s adultery with Ahmad’s free-spirited mother Teresa; Ahmad’s near-seduction by a black classmate sunk in the slough of godlessness he so despises) and very nearly risible coincidences. Nevertheless, much of the novel works smashingly: Ahmad’s impassioned sessions with his slyly seductive Muslim mentor Shaikh Rashid; his tense relationships with schoolmates and muted bonding with his amoral mom; and especially what look to be his final hours, as he drives the furniture truck toward his longed-for destination: paradise. Some readers will call the novel’s ending a cop-out; others may acknowledge it as a wry dramatization of the impossibility of predicting where contemporary ethnic and religious conflicts are leading us.
However it’s read, Updike, approaching his mid-70s, continues to entice, provoke and astonish. Who knows where he’ll take us next?