The Completist: Robert Cormier, Part Two

8 + 1A story from the collection 8 + 1 called “Protestants Cry, Too” picks up the thread from where we left off last time: with a young man enlisting in World War II, claiming that “Every man has his duty to perform.” The bulk of the story takes place before Pearl Harbor and concerns the seemingly mundane conflict between a father and son over the son’s girlfriend and soon-to-be wife. The family (like so many of Cormier’s families) are Catholic French Canadian transplants, living in the Frenchtown district of Cormier’s fictional city of Monument, MA*. The son has taken up with a Protestant from a richer part of town, and the father disapproves of this cross-religion, cross-class relationship, and peppers his younger son, the narrator**, with his anti-Protestant bigotry, claiming that they are less human than Catholics. The climax comes at the elder son’s send-off to war: the younger son watches the reaction of his new sister-in-law, and admonishes his father with the title of the story. What I’m interested in here is the intersection of authorities: the authorities of the Catholic Church and the United States. The father in the story (and the young narrator) is blinded by his misplaced understanding of the Catholic Church’s authority. Only when he at last realizes, at his younger son’s urging, that he shares with his daughter-in-law an abhorrence for the authority of the United States to send his son to his possible death—both of them urge him to stay out of the war—is he able to correct his view of the Church’s authority.

chocolate warI’ve already stated that authority, and Cormier’s suspicions of it, are central to all of his novels, but in this post I want to look at a few of these novels that pay special attention to the heightened role of authority. The most obvious book to discuss here—and the book which got Cormier into the most trouble—is The Chocolate War. The Chocolate War continues to be one of the most frequently challenged books in libraries across the country—it was the third most frequently challenged book of 2000-2009, a decade beginning the year after the novel’s 25th anniversary. And, although the reasons for challenging the book were usually “nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit,” and that ever elusive “unsuited to age group,” I find it hard not to believe that part of the reason The Chocolate War continues to offend adults is that it is explicitly, provocatively anti-authority. The arbitrary power and vindictiveness of the Vigils, the complicity of Trinity, and the ineffectuality of the students’ parents all come in for major criticism. Through a brilliant use of shifting perspectives, In both The Chocolate War and its sequel Beyond the Chocolate War, Cormier manages to examine the uses and abuses of authority as they affect all parties: the authorities themselves; the collaborators; and the resistors. The problem Cormier finds with authority is essentially the same for all three groups—the way in which power interacts with and constricts free will—but its implications are different for each group.

Jerry Renault, of course, is the most prominent resistor, although perhaps an even more intriguing character is his friend Goober. The ending of the first novel is one of the most heartbreaking moments in fiction, when Jerry’s willpower is emotionally and physically crushed and he finally gives in, telling Goober that his stand is not worth fighting for. Goober, too, feels stripped of his will, standing hopelessly by, unable to help his friend, and at the beginning of the sequel, he seems to have internalized Jerry’s message of compliance. Goober spends much of the sequel trapped in feelings of guilt, trying to atone for his failure to stand up for Jerry in the first novel. Jerry has come back to Monument from a convalescence in Canada, and has to decide whether to re-enroll in Trinity. Goober attempts to reconnect with him and apologize, but Jerry completely refuses Goober’s apology:

 “Goober, Goober . . .” Admonishing gently, as if Goober were a child to be soothed and reassured.

“Do I get another chance?”

“You don’t need another chance, Goob. You’re my friend—so what’s all this about another chance?”

In part, this is a rare (for Cormier) expression of forgiveness and reconciliation. But it is also an acknowledgement by Jerry that the pressures Goober felt from the Vigils and the school administration absolve him from some of the responsibility for his actions. I don’t mean to contradict what I wrote in my last post—I still believe that Cormier believes steadfastly in the primacy of one’s actual action or inaction and the absolute morality therefore. But I think he is trying to say here that there is room for mitigating factors, especially when the full institutional weight of a body like a school or government comes to bear on the individual.

ragandboneshopWe can see this even more vividly in the other major novel which hammers on the excesses of authority, The Rag and Bone Shop.  I’ve mentioned my admiration for this novel in this space before and having recently reread it I like it even more. In the post I just linked to, I criticized the ending of the novel, but now—although I still think Cormier handles it less than perfectly—I think that ending is critical to Cormier’s point.

The plot is another bare bones one: a young girl is murdered, and the police have no suspects except 12-year-old Jason Dorrant, who was the last person to see the girl alive. The bulk of the narrative is taken up by a police interrogation of Jason by an interrogator named Trent. Trent becomes increasingly sure of Jason’s innocence, but he continues to try to squeeze a confession out of Jason, and eventually succeeds. The novel ends with a double twist: first, immediately after Jason confesses, the police discover the true criminal, humiliating Trent. Second, we are given a view into Jason’s head as he tries to make sense of his confession. He asks himself why he did it: “No, not what he did but what he said he did when he did not do it” and he begins to reason “But if you said you did it, maybe you could do it”. Cormier ends with a strong hint that Jason is about to attempt a crime very like the one he has confessed to.

I don’t need to belabor the point: the coercive power of the state is such that if used incorrectly, it can actually change the will of the individual. Cormier doesn’t make clear whether he thinks Jason holds responsibility for his actions at the end, but he certainly does make clear, both here and in the Chocolate War books, that the real evil resides in those in authority and those who are complicit with authority.

A line spoken by Trent’s wife runs through The Rag and Bone Shop like a chorus: “You are what you do.” Once again, I don’t want to get overly theological here, but this sounds suspiciously like an argument for Catholic position in the famous argument over Faith vs. Works, and it clearly coincides with what I’ve been saying about Cormier’s position on sin. Trent sees that Jason is innocent, but persists in doing his “duty” anyway (Cormier seems to have a disdain for the concept of duty in any but the most moral sense). It is true that Trent is under pressure from the system in which he works—he wants a political favor from a key participant in the case, he knows he has a job to do, etc.—but Cormier is not willing to let him off the hook. By agreeing to be on the side of authority, Trent has the power to sin or not to sin.

Beyond the Chocolate War makes the same point, through the character of Obie. In the first novel, Obie is seen is a stooge of Archie—a bright kid, but essentially interested in furthering Archie’s and the Vigils’ interests. Here, Obie begins to rebel against Archie, trying to cut down Archie’s authority within the Vigils. After Obie fails, here’s what Archie has to say:

“You blame me for everything, right, Obie? You and Carter and all the others. Archie Costello, the bad guy. The villain. Archie, the bastard. . . . It’s you, Obie. You and Carter and Bunting and Leon and everybody. But especially you, Obie. Nobody forced you to do anything, buddy. . . . Oh, I’m an easy scapegoat, Obie. For you and everybody else at Trinity. Always have been. But you had free choice, buddy.

Of course, we can’t take Archie’s word for anything—and he is clearly trying to let himself off the hook for his own abuses—but it seems clear that Cormier believes the core of this argument, that Obie, Carter, Brother Leon and the rest have free choice to fight with or against the Vigils.

How then, does the individual respond to the coercion of authority and power? As we have seen, The Chocolate War and The Rag and Bone Shop seem to imply that the answer is: there’s not much you can do. But even if you cannot win, it is clear that Cormier believes you must try. You don’t want to be complicit like Obie. In fact, you don’t even want to do nothing. Several Cormier novels feature scenes in which characters are implicitly criticized for sins of omission. In In the Middle of the Night, the protagonist mutely watches another boy being beat up and ineffectually argues to himself “All I did was mind my own business.” Similarly, in We All Fall Down, we will see in another post how a character named Buddy must accept the consequences of simply having watched an assault, even though he could hardly have done anything about it.

beyondchocwarBeyond the Chocolate War gives a more thorough answer. As Jerry decides whether or not to return to Trinity, he sees that unless he wants to join a monastery or something, there is no avoiding the problem:

“Know what I keep thinking, Goober? How many Archie Costellos there are in the world. Out there. Everywhere. Waiting.” A thought crept into his mind: It was be nice to avoid the world, to leave it and all its threats and unhappiness.

Instead, the answer comes to him in another confrontation with Emile Janza, who was responsible for his final defeat in The Chocolate War. This time, instead of fighting back against Emile, Jerry simply stands still and lets Emile beat him up. “Jerry smiled at him. He knew it must be a grotesque and pathetic smile. But a smile all the same.”  He explains his reasons to Goober: “They want you to fight, Goober. And you can really lose only if you fight them. That’s what the goons want.” Renewed, he makes his decision to return to Trinity and face the Vigils and the school with silence.

Fascinatingly, Cormier repeated this scene in almost identical fashion ten years late, in In the Middle of the Night. As I mentioned above, the narrator observes a fellow classmate taking a beating—crucially, without raising a hand. Ashamed of himself for not intervening, he avoids the student for a long time, but finally has to know why he didn’t defend himself. The student replies:

So they pushed and shoved and knocked me down and got tired of it and walked away. Know what? I didn’t figure I was the victim that day. They were. Those guys avoid me now, they look ashamed like they did something dirty.***

Of course, this response only works to a point, which is where The Rag and Bone Shop comes in, but at least it is a principled stand, as opposed to the complicity of kids like Obie.

*Monument, or its environs, is the setting for almost every single story and novel Cormier wrote for teens. It is based on Cormier’s hometown of Leominster, MA. Cormier’s Frenchtown parallel’s Leominster’s French Hill district. Even many of the street names—Mechanic St., Water St.—are the same streets of French Hill, Leominster.

**Incidentally, the narrator is named Jerry Renault, but is clearly not the same character as the protagonist of The Chocolate War

***BTW, this may be relevant to Mom only, but compare this sentiment to the Todd Snider song “Is This Thing Working”

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