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    Wednesday, May 31, 2006

    John Updike is Unbearable

    Ew. Ew. Ew. Please die already.

    And he hired a car and a driver to take him around some of the seedier neighborhoods in Paterson, N.J., and to show him some churches and storefronts that had been converted into mosques. "He did his best, but I think I puzzled him as a tour customer," Mr. Updike said.

    "Terrorist," which comes out from Alfred A. Knopf next week, is set in Paterson — or, rather, in a slightly smaller, tidier version of the city, called New Prospect — and is about just what the title says. Its protagonist is an 18-year-old named Ahmad, the son of a hippie-ish American mother and an Egyptian exchange student, now absent, who embraces Islam and is eventually recruited to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel.

    Hippie-ish mother, huh? Wonder where he got that?

    Originally, though, he imagined the protagonist as a young Christian, an extension of the troubled teenage character in his early story "Pigeon Feathers," who comes to feel betrayed by a clergyman. "I imagined a young seminarian who sees everyone around him as a devil trying to take away his faith," he said. "The 21st century does look like that, I think, to a great many people in the Arab world."

    When Mr. Updike switched the protagonist's religion to Islam, he explained, it was because he "thought he had something to say from the standpoint of a terrorist."

    He went on: "I think I felt I could understand the animosity and hatred which an Islamic believer would have for our system. Nobody's trying to see it from that point of view. I guess I have stuck my neck out here in a number of ways, but that's what writers are for, maybe."

    He laughed and added: "I sometimes think, 'Why did I do this?' I'm delving into what can be a very sore subject for some people. But when those shadows would cross my mind, I'd say, 'They can't ask for a more sympathetic and, in a way, more loving portrait of a terrorist.' "


    Yes, Updike is doing something no one else is doing. No one, NO ONE is trying to see things from the point-of-view of the Islamic terrorist. Ummmm, maybe if you're hanging out at the White House. But please.

    Updike is such a risk-taker.

    "Terrorist" even includes some Koran passages in Arabic transliteration; Shady Nasser, a graduate student, helped Mr. Updike on those sections. "My conscience was pricked by the notion that I was putting into the book something that I can't pronounce," he said, but he added: "Arabic is very twisting, very beautiful. The call to prayer is quite haunting; it almost makes you a believer on the spot. My feeling was, 'This is God's language, and the fact that you don't understand it means you don't know enough about God.' "

    Isn't Islam just soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo lovely and exotic?

    "All my life there has been one more thing I think I can do — but only one," he said. "I feel I'm very near the bottom of my barrel at every moment of my career — not like Dostoevsky, who had a notebook full of ideas when he died. I try to see the next book in my mind, and I see a slightly plump book with a lot of people in it, like 'Gosford Park.' But it's not a murder mystery because I'm not clever enough to write one of those."

    Oh yes, Mr. Humility.

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