I haven't read Updike before (another in a very long line of authors I should have read). I don't know whether this was a good book to start. I only know that it was a superb read.
As a thriller it has, perhaps, too slow a build but when the climax comes the last pages are utterly unputdownable and the will he won't he question is only answered with less than five pages to go. But it is too well written and the characters are too real and multi-dimensional to be a thriller.
It centres on Ahmad, a serious young man about to graduate from high school, the offspring of an aging hippy, red-haired, Irish, health assistant-cum-painter and an absent Egyptian father. Ahmad has been attending the mosque and studying the Koran since he was 11; he is virginal, clean-living and convinced that God is inside him and with him. His perspective on America provides Updike with pages of beautifully written condemnation of consumerism, immorality, greed and selfishness in the archetypal New Jersey town of New Prospect. Ahmad visits a church (because he is invited by African-American Joryleen whom he fancies the pants off, but stays pure) and has a near fight with Joryleen's boyfriend and talks to his guidance counsellor Mr Levy and learns to drive a truck for a furniture firm.
Updike achieves the difficult task of putting flesh and blood upon this strange religious boy. He is moved by temptation. He is afraid. He loves his mother even as he understands her weaknesses (she has a lot of temporary boyfriends). He even has doubts about his Koranic teachers (though never about being with God).
The other major character is Mr Levy, the school guidance counsellor. He is a secular Jew, born of a lapsed Jewish father who embraced communism. His wife, Beth, is a fat, lazy American woman who works in a library (but the passages written from her viewpoint make her much much more than a stock character). Mr Levy takes an interest in Ahmad (and a greater interest in his mother): he feels Ahmad is too bright to waste his life driving a truck.
There are beautiful passages from this book. The struggle for Beth to pick up the remote control she has dropped on the floor. The confrontation between Ahmad and Joryleen's boyfriend. The relationship between Ahmad and his co-driver, Charlie. The fabulous, life affirming walk that Ahmad takes to his truck: "An unseen dog in a house barks at the shadow-sound of Ahmad passing on the sidewalk. A ginger coloured cat with one blind eye like a crazed white marble is huddling close to the front screen door as it waits to be let in; it arches its back and flashes a golden spark from its narrowed good eye .... The air tingles on Ahmad's face but there is not enough of a drizzle to soak his shirt." Four pages later, however, he is less happy. "The shabbiness in the streets, the fast-food trash and broken plastic toys, the unpainted steps and porches still dark from the morning's dampness, the windows cracked and not repaired .... Women's voices rise from back rooms in merciless complaint against children who were born uninvited and now collect, neglected around the only friendly voices in their hearing, those from the television set."
This is a superb book by a writer on top of his form.
June 2009, 310 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57