The Completist: Robert Cormier, Part One

robert cormierA couple weeks ago, Jonathan Hunt mentioned that Robert Cormier would make a good entry in The Completist, my continuing series focusing on the complete YA works of a particular author. I agreed with him, so after a few weeks of furious reading and rereading, here I am.

Cormier began his career with three adult novels, which I would love to read at some point, but don’t figure into this post. Then, after a nine year break in novels, he unleashed The Chocolate War—possibly one of the greatest and certainly one of the most controversial YA novels of all time, and the first in a string of twelve YA novels over the remaining 25 years of his life. He also published: a collection of stories which can easily be read as for adults or teens, but which I’ll include here; a slim volume of poetry, which is frankly not very good, but I’ll discuss briefly; a collection of his newspaper columns, which is intended for adults; and a middle grade novel called Other Bells for Us to Ring, which is long out of print and doesn’t fit our age range in any case, so I’ll be skipping it.

So that leaves us with fourteen books, twice as many as I’ve discussed in previous entries to this series. And, although, as we’ll see, there is a lot of coherence to these works, it’s just too much to address in one post. So, as you can see from the title, this is simply part one of my examination of Cormier.

Cormier’s novels are remarkably consistent in quality. His spare prose style—marked by heavy use of sentence fragments and short sentences—is easy to read but versatile enough to handle many types of characters and plots. His plots are perhaps his weakest point—he sometimes has to make sacrifices in plausibility in order to make his plots tightly cohere and stay strongly focused on his thematic and moral concerns. Nevertheless, that tightness in plot has its own advantages, and one always comes away from his books with the sense that he used exactly as much (or little) space as he needed to convey his points. For many readers, I suspect, what makes Cormier shine is his deep, psychologically complex characters, and I certainly agree with that. I want to take it a step further though, and argue that the strength of Cormier’s characters comes from his relentless attempts to work through a single set of themes. For Cormier, his themes are central, and he needs dramatic, realistic characters to examine those themes from all angles.

So what are those themes? I once wrote a brief discussion post for a class in library school entitled “Robert Cormier: Pessimist”, and Wikipedia agrees with that assessment, saying that Cormier is “known for his deeply pessimistic, downbeat literature.” But after reading his complete works, I have come to disagree with both myself and Wikipedia (two pretty easy targets). While no one could accuse Cormier of being a sunny optimist, I now tend to think the terms “pessimist” and “optimist” are unhelpful lenses for looking at his work. Instead, I think the key to understanding Cormier’s work is through his Catholicism, specifically through his very Catholic take on the interconnections among the themes of free will, sin, guilt, and authority.

And the point is nobody’s perfect. There’s always a flaw. A secret. Something rotten. Everybody has something to cover up. The nice man next door is probably a child molester. The choir singer a rapist. . . . Don’t blame me . . . Blame human nature. I didn’t make the world. (Beyond the Chocolate War)

Trent was aware of the masks people wear and it was his job to remove the masks, if not entirely, then at least to allow a glimpse of the evil underneath. Was there evil in this boy? Was he capable of an evil act? We are all capable, Trent thought (Rag and Bone Shop)

The most important of these themes is free will. As the quotations above make clear, it is crucial for Cormier that humans are free beings, able to choose to do good or evil in the world, and that those choices have real, definable consequences. One of those consequences is Cormier’s understanding that true evil exists in the world, and that it is caused by human sin. Another consequence is the toll that sin takes on the individual who commits it, in the form of guilt. Finally, wrapped around all of these issues is the concept of authority. Cormier is deeply suspicious of authority, both individual and institutional, to the extent that it may have the power to take away, or greatly constrict, an individual’s free will.

Before I take a look at how this all plays out in his work, I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to start a theological debate. Plenty of non-Catholics have very similar worldviews to Cormier’s, even if they would use different terminology, and plenty of Catholics probably find him perplexing. But it is a fact that Cormier himself was a Catholic, and that the vast majority of his protagonists (and characters in general for that matter) are Catholics, so I think it is fair to say that his ideas on these issues were informed by his religion.

tunes for bearsSo let’s (finally) take a look at the books. Rather than going through all fourteen chronologically (which, incidentally would put me in the position of starting off writing more words about that most-written-about novel The Chocolate War), I’d like to start by showing how these themes play out in a very minor middle novel, called Tunes for Bears to Dance To.* The plot of this 100-page novel is simplicity itself: 11-year-old Henry befriends a Holocaust survivor who is meticulously creating a wood-carving of his Polish village, pre-Nazi-destruction. Henry’s employer, Mr. Hairston, seemingly acting from anti-Semitism, blackmails Henry into destroying the village: threatening to fire Henry, and simultaneously offering him a raise, a good word for his mother at the factory where she works, and help building a monument for Henry’s dead brother. Overwhelmed by Hairston’s pressure, Henry goes to carry out the horrible deed. At the last moment, he decides he cannot betray his new friend, but at this exact moment, he is startled by a noise and accidentally drops the hammer he was going to use—destroying the village by mistake.

Cormier’s point here is unmistakable: regardless of Henry’s last minute intentions, his actions have consequences—he has betrayed his friend (and we will see that “betrayal” is one of Cormier’s favorite words to describe his character’s sins), whether he wanted to or not. Hairston here is emphatic:

“Congratulations . . . You did it, then. Whether you wanted to or not, you did it.” Astonishingly, he winked at Henry, the wink drawing them into a kind of conspiracy. . . .  “I’m a man of my word, Henry. You’ll keep your job and have a raise. I’ll speak to the owner about your mother’s promotion. And the monument—I’ll order it first chance I get”

Fortunately for Henry, this isn’t quite the end. He realizes that Hairston’s true motivation was not anti-Semitism, but to corrupt Henry himself: “It was me he was after all the time. Not the old man and his village. He didn’t want me to be good anymore.” When Henry refuses the rewards, Hairston practically begs: “You must accept. . . . Otherwise, the smashing means nothing”

The novel comes to a close, as many of Cormier’s do, on a melancholy tone—but not, emphatically, a pessimistic one:

He knelt and began to pray. Prayed for his father and mother and Eddie’s soul in case he was still in purgatory. Prayed for Doris and the old man. . . . When he whispered “Deliver us from evil” at the end of the Our Father, he thought of Mr. Hairston. Then he did something he had never done before. He prayed for Mr. Hairston. “Forgive him,” he whispered.

Forgive me too.”

I hope I don’t have to spell this out too much: the authority embodied by Mr. Hairston places tremendous, unconscionable pressure on Henry’s free will, and yet Henry remains responsible at some level—even after refusing Hairston’s rewards, the man’s village is smashed and Henry will not be able to rebuild a relationship with him. At the same time, his guilt allows him to grow as a person, to recognize the evil in the world, and to ask for forgiveness, both for himself, and perhaps more crucially, for Mr. Hairston.

HeroesThe same pattern repeats in Cormier’s penultimate novel, Heroes. The narrator, Francis, has come home from World War II, his face destroyed by a grenade, and he is on a self-proclaimed mission to kill a man named Larry LaSalle. On the first page of the novel, he offers this horrific statement, almost inverting Henry’s realization from Tunes For Bears to Dance To:

Pray for your enemies . . . So I offer up an Our Father and Hail Mary and Glory Be for Larry LaSalle. Then I am filled with guilt and shame, knowing that I have just prayed for the man I am going to kill.

The plot alternates between Francis walking the streets of Frenchtown looking for Larry and scenes of Francis and his friends in the weeks leading up the war. Francis and his girlfriend, Nicole, were regulars at a recreation hall owned and operated by Larry, who is beloved by all of the local teens, especially Francis, and is the first to enlist after Pearl Harbor. On a leave, after earning a Silver Star for courage, Larry comes back to Frenchtown, and the town parties into the night at the rec center. At the end of the night, only Larry, Nicole, and Francis are left, and Larry convinces Francis to leave him and Nicole alone. Nicole asks Francis to stay, but Francis is under the spell of Larry.  Francis stays just close enough to overhear Larry rape Nicole, but is frozen in fear and does nothing. As Nicole leaves, she sees Francis:

And I recognized in her eyes now what I could not deny: betrayal. My betrayal of her in her eyes. . . . I could only stand there mute, as if all my sins had been revealed and there was no forgiveness for them.

It is this betrayal (there’s that word again) that leads Francis to enlist, though he is only 15, hoping that he will die in the war—ironically, he ends up earning a Silver Star as well, jumping on a grenade to save his platoon, though he claims it was a suicide attempt. And it is this betrayal he hopes to atone for on his return by killing Larry.

Francis is ultimately unable to kill Larry, and instead goes searching for Nicole, in hopes of forgiveness. Ultimately, she does forgive him—in fact, asks his forgiveness for blaming him for something he could not have stopped had he tried—but in much the same spirit as Tunes for Bears to Dance To, it is too late for them to repair their relationship. In this case, rather than turn to prayer, Francis turns to writing, and we are led to believe that the novel in our hands is Francis’s attempt at atonement.

I think these two novels set out the basic terms of Cormier’s thematic obsessions quite well. Before leaving Heroes, though, I do want to mention one other component to the novel. Heroes is that very rare breed: an anti-war novel (or at least a suspicious-of-war novel) about World War II. The title is deeply ironic—as the matching Silver Stars earned by Larry, the rapist, and Francis, the suicidal, should make clear—and Cormier is in fact suspicious of the whole concept of heroism. One of Francis’s friends rants thus:

“Heroes,” he scoffs, his voice sharp and bitter, all signs of drunkenness gone.  “We weren’t heroes. . . . No heroes [there] Francis. Only us, the boys of Frenchtown. Scared and homesick and cramps in the stomach and vomit. Nothing glamorous like the write-ups in the papers or the newsreels. We weren’t heroes. We were only there . . . “

Cormier doesn’t not push this point heavily, but it seems clear that his suspicions of war and heroism come from his disdain for the coercive power of the government.  Which is where we will pick this up in the next installment.

*BTW, let me just state for the record that I think that Cormier is a relentless bad writer of titles. “Tunes for Bears to Dance To”? OK, yes, this is a reference to Madame Bovary, but surely it is an entirely obscure reference. What is the reader to make of this? I Am the Cheese, We All Fall Down, and The Rag and Bone Shop are similarly allusive titles – the first two to presumably well-known nursery rhymes, but again, are they evocative of the novel? Perhaps We All Fall Down is, but not the others. The Chocolate War speaks directly to the heart of the plot, but left me, for one, not wanting to read it for years—who wants to read a book about chocolate? Interestingly, Cormier was very defensive about his titles. In his story collection 8 + 1, he mentions that editors changed the title of one of his stories from “The Indians Don’t Attack at Dawn Anymore” to “A Bad Time for Fathers”:

I accepted the change philosophically, thinking that an apt title for a certain aspect of my writing career could be called ‘A Bad Time for Titles.’ . . . I don’t try to be perversely flamboyant with titles, although I must confess a weakness for long ones . . . Why should a title always brief and obvious? Why not a title that seems obscure, although it evokes the mood of the story? . . . The question arises: What’s a good title, anyway? What’s it supposed to do? Arouse curiosity, compel the reader to begin reading at once, hint gently at what is to come, or spell out to the reader exactly what awaits? I’m not sure. In fact, I even contradict myself on occasion. . . . I think the reader receives a pleasant shock of recognition when, suddenly, the meaning of the title becomes clear as the story is being read. I love that kind of surprise in stories and, frankly, I try to write the kind of stories I would enjoy reading.

All I can say is, I love his stories, but I hate his titles.

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