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John Updike Reads from His Novel 'Terrorist'

Book Tour is a new Web feature and podcast. Each week we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

John Updike's latest novel, Terrorist, is a post-Sept. 11 thriller about a pious Muslim teenager, Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy, who shuns the materialism of his New Jersey town and is led step by step into a terrorist plot.

Updike claims he didn't even read his first novel until he was 15. After that, though, he lost little time mastering the art of fiction himself.

He published his first short story in The New Yorker at 22, his first full-length work of fiction, The Poorhouse Fair, five years later, and has since been one of the country's most prolific authors. He has written more than 50 books, including short-story collections, works of poetry and criticism, and 22 novels, and he's ventured as far afield as science fiction, magical realism and children's literature.

His best known character, Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, a former high-school basketball star trying to cope with his unfulfilling middle-class life, made his debut in the 1960 novel Rabbit, Run. Three more "Rabbit" novels and a novella followed.

Updike, who has been honored with nearly every award in the literary pantheon, received a Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for Rabbit Is Rich and another in 1990 for Rabbit at Rest. His portraits of the emotional wasteland of suburbia helped define American fiction in the second half of the 20th century. What fiction does at its best, he says, is "to dramatize our sense ... of time passing and the immense tragedy that time's passing is."

Updike admits to feeling timid at first about taking on a story centered on Islam and terrorism. He says the book is about "a long struggle with doubt and a boy trying to keep his faith."

"If I were a teacher ... and were to assign a relevant text ... to shed light on this book," Updike says, "it would be a short story I wrote many years ago called 'Pigeon Feathers,' in which a 13-year-old boy in confirmation class in a Lutheran church in rural Pennsylvania discovers that the minister doesn't really believe any of this, not in the literal way in which it was intended. And his struggle is recorded in that short story, and there's a lot of that boy in my young Muslim."

This reading of Terrorist, sponsored by the Politics & Prose Bookstore, took place in June 2007 at Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Kulman
Linda Kulman, the editor of NPR.org’s weekly feature Book Tour, is an avid reader, veteran journalist and writer living in Washington, D.C. She worked as a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report for a decade, where she reported for every section of the magazine. Most recently, she covered religion and consumer culture. Kulman’s book reviews have appeared in The Washington Post and on NPR.org. She has collaborated on four non-fiction books, working with a variety of notable figures. Early on in her career, she worked for several years as a fact checker at The New Yorker. Kulman also earned a degree from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.
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