This is a tough call, but on the whole I am giving this novel 4 stars because it successfully held my attention, got me engaged in trying to understand the characters' motives and is beautifully written. Having said that, I want to acknowledge that many of the criticisms leveled here by other Amazon reviewers do have merit, primarily the charge that Updike's characters are often stereotypical. Of interest to me is that, while many reviewers complained about the stereotypes of fat wives, Arab-Americans and single mothers, I didn't notice any comments on the characters of African-American school girl Joryleen and her boyfriend, who is named "Tylenol," of all things. But in any case, since the stereotype issues have been well covered by other reviewers, I'm going to let that go and focus on what I see as the positives of this novel, and there really are quite a few.
For one thing, I like the fact that Updike chose this very difficult topic to write about and also made obvious efforts to understand aspects of Islamic-American culture that are doubtless utterly foreign to him. An author of his standing could just coast for the rest of his career, but this writer chose to stretch himself and try to get inside the mind of a character that represents a far more complex America than that of Rabbit, for example. This is an America that we had all better take a shot at understanding, since this is the one we are living in today, and will have to go on living in for some time to come. Believers in Islam are here and they are becoming an ever more important force in the polyglot US -- AND it is pretty clear that many of these folks are severely disaffected from the mainstream culture. *If* this alienation tends to encourage violent actions, then those of us who are of the so-called "majority" culture had better spend some time trying to understand why that is, and think about how we can help these new US residents succeed here. (That's a big IF, since it seems perfectly plausible to me that cultural alienation does not lead to "homegrown" terrorism at all. But for the purposes of this review, I am assuming that it could.)
Another positive of this novel is that it is beautifully written and highly evocative of place. The place happens to be a depressingly urbanized New Jersey, so it's easy to miss the power of Updike's descriptions, but consider this passage: "...the sky cloudless but for a puffy far scatter over Long Island, the ozone at the zenith so intense it seems a smooth-walled pit of blue fire, the accumulated towers of lower Manhattan a single gleaming mass, speedboats purring and sailboats tilting in the bay, the cries and conversation of the tourist crowd making a dapple of harmless sound around them. 'This beauty,' Ahmad thinks 'must mean something -- a hint from Allah, a foreshadow of Paradise.'
As for the criticism that Updike is anti-American and using the character of Ahmad to voice his own complaints, I counter by saying that it's important for us Americans to be more self-reflective than we may find comfortable, and that Updike is contributing something useful by raising important moral and ethical challenges to our behavior as a nation in the world. Take for example this line from pp. 198-9 of the novel: "[True adherents] believe that a billion followers of Islam need not have their eyes and ears and souls corrupted by the poisonous entertainments of Hollywood and a ruthless economic imperialism whose Christian-Jewish God is a decrepit idol, a mere mask concealing the despair of atheists."
Granted, that is powerful stuff and certainly discomfiting. But if one reads any of the world's press at all, it is pretty clear that this is the image that many people have of America, and the challenge Updike's characters are presenting in this novel seem to me to be worth considering. What sort of response shall we give to a comment like the above? How observant of our religious principles are the majority of us here in the US, and what about the economic fallout of our national trade and security policies? I am not saying that I agree with the assessments of the characters in this novel, nor do I necessarily think we should assume Updike does. But it is a view that we might at least consider if we hope to come to peaceable terms with the billions of Muslims who are solid citizens of this and the world's other nations, and who have no hostile intentions.
So, for me, the bottom line on Terrorist is that it's an important book that raises difficult questions that ought to be given some serious thought. We should be glad that Updike chose to write it.