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Envisioning the life of an American suicide bomber

John Updike tries to imagine the mind of a US-grown, teenage terrorist.

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One of the most difficult things for Americans to comprehend about terrorism is how young people could value their own lives so little that they would volunteer to blow themselves up. In his new novel, Terrorist, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John Updike takes it upon himself to enlighten us by envisioning the life of someone who so far, thankfully, does not exist: an American suicide bomber.

It's an impressively difficult task, even if the results aren't always impressive. (Not that other novels haven't already delved into the appeal Islamic extremism can hold for Muslims living in the West, such as Monica Ali's memorable "Brick Lane.")

"Terrorist" is actually Updike's second book about a crisis of faith set in northern New Jersey. His 1997 novel, "In the Beauty of Lilies," opens at the very moment that the Rev. Clarence Wilmot loses all belief in God.

But there are some big differences between the two novels. "Lilies" is a sweeping tale spanning about 100 years in the life and religion of a family, while "Terrorist" takes place over the course of a summer. "Lilies" ranges far afield to Colorado and California, while almost all of "Terrorist" takes place in the rundown city of New Prospect.

Most strikingly, however, "Lilies" possesses complex characters and a healthy appreciation of nuance. From the first sentence of "Terrorist" it's clear that subtlety is not on the menu: "Devils, Ahmad thinks, These devils seek to take away my God."

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