Friday, June 06, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “I Am the Cheese,” by Robert Cormier

(Editor’s note: This is the sixth entry in our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from Steve Hockensmith, author of the popular “Holmes on the Range” mystery series.)

There are a lot of reasons not to read Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese. First and foremost being, of course, the title.

I Am the Cheese? Chuh? It sounds like the sequel to The Stinky Cheese Man, or maybe the ghostwritten autobiography of a flamboyant professional wrestler with a particularly stupid catchphrase. (“I’m comin’ for you, Rowdy Roddy Piper! The Big Gorgonzola is gonna smother you Saturday night at the Astrodrome! Because I am the cheese, baby! I am the cheese!”)

I mean, really--how’d you get that one past your editor, Bob?

The answer being (if the late Mr. Cormier deigned to respond via Ouija board), “Because I’m Robert Cormier! So there!”

Cormier had the power to give his book the Worst. Title. Ever (excepting the legendary Cooking with Pooh), thanks to his previous book, 1974’s The Chocolate War. Which brings us to another reason not to read I Am the Cheese. The Chocolate War was a bestselling, critically beloved young adult novel. Cormier wrote for kids.

“So,” I hear you say, “when are you gonna get to the part where you tell me--a self-respecting, tough-minded crime-fiction lover--why I should give a pooh about some YA thing with a laughable title?”

“Well,” I hear myself reply, “how about right now?”

So here goes.

It’s really short.

That’s what finally got me over my resistance to the book. I’d found it on a shelf at my in-laws’ house years before, a lonely, dust-covered relic of some long-forgotten book report. (I Am the Cheese was first published in 1977.) The cover blurbs caught my eye, as did the muted, somber, vaguely sinister cover art (reproduced here through the magic of the dinky digital camera). And, yes--the fact that it was only 220 pages long argued strongly in its favor, as well. I read very slowly. Short is good.

Still, even after I transferred the book from my in-laws’ shelf to my own, it simply gathered more dust. That title. A YA novel. There was always something else to read.

Until one day, a few months ago, I put down the doorstop I’d just struggled through and searched my To Be Read collection (approximately the size of the library of Alexandria) for a palette cleanser. Preferably something wafer thin. Just a tiny little paperback.

And there it was, still waiting patiently after all these years. So I picked up the YA thing with the laughable title ... and it turned out to be one of the best noir thrillers I’d read in ages. Really.

Here’s how it begins:
I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I’m pedaling furiously because this is an old-fashioned bike, no speeds, no fenders, only the warped tires and the brakes that don’t always work and the handlebars with cracked rubber grips to steer with. A plain bike--the kind my father rode as a kid years ago. It’s cold as I pedal along, the wind like a snake slithering up my sleeves and into my jacket and my pants legs, too. But I keep pedaling, I keep pedaling.
There’s a grabber thriller opening for you: a kid on a bike. Yet it does grab you--or at least it grabbed me--not because the book begins with three seconds left on the timer, and a beautiful FBI profiler is strapped atop a bomb and her hands are tied with the bloody entrails of her just-murdered partner, and MY GOD WHAT WILL SHE DO TICK TICK TICK?!? No, the hooks here are more subtle than that, working under the reader’s skin through fine writing rather than ham-fisted plotting.

You get a place. You get a situation. You get an uneasy sense of foreboding and desperation. And you get questions--lots of questions. The main ones being “Who exactly is this kid?” and “Where is he going in such a hurry?” And those turn out to be two of the biggest questions of the whole book.

The narrator--a teenager named Adam--keeps on pedaling, pedaling, pedaling, riding into and out of (and back into) trouble with a number of slippery, hostile characters. As he races along rural Eastern highways, he tours his confused memories, as well. Something has happened to his mother, but Adam can’t quite remember what. His father is out of the picture, too, perhaps gone into hiding, but Adam can’t quite remember why. And both parents kept a secret from Adam, lied to him, and he’s not the only one looking for answers. The book periodically shifts from first person to third (a long, long time before that became fashionable), with ominous interludes in between--excerpts from Adam’s interrogation by a man who might be a doctor, might be a policeman, might be ... something else.

As the truth begins to come into focus, so too does a relentlessly building dread. We suspect that Adam’s in trouble. Then we fear that he’s up against forces he can’t possibly defeat. Then we know that he’s doomed. He’s pedaling, pedaling, pedaling to oblivion.

If the book’s final revelations turn out to be a wee bit creaky, that’s not Cormier’s fault. A lot of Mementos and Losts and Shutter Islands have passed under the pop-culture bridge in the past 30 years. We’re used to having our heads messed with now. We almost expect it.

What we’re not so used to--especially from twisty-turny crime-fiction fare--is having our hearts messed with. Adam’s not a sleazy criminal or a tough-guy P.I. He’s just a kid. And we care about what happens to him in a way we don’t care about the usual flawed, morally compromised noir schmuck floundering in the spiral-flow down the drain to damnation. To say that I Am the Cheese is noir with a heart isn’t to say it’s sentimental. It means it’s written with a compassion the genre often lacks.

Now, if it seems to you that I’ve just made a ridiculous argument--like trying to position Horton Hears a Who! as a subversive hard-boiled masterpiece--all I can do is ask you to read the book. In the end, you’ll find that even that awful, awful title makes a certain sad sense, if you remember your nursery rhymes. It’s from the last line of “The Farmer in the Dell”: “The cheese stands alone.”

Yes, Adam is the cheese.

And this book is the bomb.

And now I’ll take a page from the Big Gorgonzola’s book. It’s tag-team time! I’m calling in Tim “The Bay City Butcher” Maleeny, author of the fab-tastic Cape Weathers mystery-thrillers, for the next Friday favorite choice. Have at ’em, Tim ... no holds barred!


pattinase (abbott) said...

I remember distinctly my son reading this one summer. He enjoyed it so much. Now I'll read it too. Thanks so much.

Corey Redekop said...

Great choice. I love this novel so much, although my initial reading of it was marred through childhood taunting. But I used the incident in my book, so it's all good.

Again, great choice. Everyone should read Cormier.

Tor Hershman said...

Here's a book for ya,
"My Life As A Small Boy" by
Wally Cox

Patty Campbell said...

Great review. You caught Cormier's fine writing and overwhelming humanity, the qualities that make him so great. But don't stop with I Am the Cheese--go on to After the First Death, a thriller that gets inside the head of a terrorist, or The Rag and Bone Shop (now there's a title for you), which focuses on the interrogation of a young boy for murder by a detective who's only interested in getting that confession, regardless of the truth. And for the record, Cormier always claimed that he did not write for teens, although he enjoyed the astuteness of that audience. Patty Campbell (author of Robert Cormier: Daring to Disturb the Universe)