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Updike makes "Terrorist" lovable in new novel

Written by: Staff

NEW YORK, June 5 (Reuters) Novelist John Updike watched the first tower of the World Trade Centre collapse, yet he speaks with affection of the idealistic Muslim teen-ager in his new novel ''Terrorist'' who plots to blow up a New York tunnel.

Reviews of Updike's 22nd novel, to be published tomorrow, have been good, though the sympathetic portrayal of the title character, 18-year-old Ahmad, sparks unease in some.

''To me it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world.

Anybody can write a novel about an evil terrorist,'' the Pulitzer prize-winning author said in an interview yesterday.

''I was trying to show how a perfectly human American can find himself enlisted in a catastrophic plot ... I wanted to get the reader right into the head of a terrorist.'' Ahmad is the son of an Irish American woman and an Egyptian exchange student who abandoned them after a few years. Ahmad turns to Islam as a child, and by the time he is leaving high-school, he is disgusted by what he sees around him in a fictional New Jersey industrial town.

''Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God,'' is the first line of the book, as he surveys the scene at his high school where girls expose their bellies and cleavages and where he is bullied by black and Latino classmates.

Shunning college, Ahmad is advised by his Imam to learn to drive a truck and gets a job at a furniture business. Seduced by ideas of paradise, he agrees to drive a truck bomb to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel between New Jersey and Manhattan.

Nonetheless, as New York Times writer Charles McGrath puts it: ''Ahmad is lovable, or at least appealing; he's in many ways the most moral and thoughtful character in the entire book.'' Updike said he was interested in the mix in teen-agers of idealism, religion and uncertainty about the future.

''I did feel very much with him when he becomes alone in his mission,'' Updike said with affection, likening Ahmad walking through the streets to pick up the truck bomb to his own boyhood walks when he would plot his future as a writer.

It's ''the same sense of a secret mission that makes you different from the world,'' he said.

Updike said that ever since he happened to see the collapse of the first World Trade Centre tower first-hand, he feels a connection with the disaster and the book was an obvious step, though it started life with the title ''Land of Fear.'' As it turned out, the thriller is less concerned with politics than with the roots of hatred, particularly racial tensions, and Updike admits he is not politically correct.

There is also humour -- a black bully is named after the pain-relief drug Tylenol because he was a big baby -- and sex scenes of the sort familiar from his previous books of what he calls ''middle-class mischief.'' For instance, Ahmad's mother has an affair with a Jewish school guidance councilor, whose wife has become obese. Ahmad himself is tempted by Joryleen, who goes from singing in Church to turning tricks.

Publishers Weekly said Updike seemed to share some of Ahmad's revulsion for US culture as mirrored in the other characters: ''He dwells on their poor bodies and the debased world in which they move unrelentingly, and with a dispassionate cruelty that verges on shocking.'' Despite being one of the most successful living American novelists, Updike admits he's had little luck with the movies.

''This book is being shopped around, but I've not heard of any serious nibbles,'' he said. In movies ''you expect to be able to identify good and bad characters, and yet my interest is 'What is good and what is bad?''' REUTERS SI RN1047

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