The only Cormier novel I haven’t discussed so far in this series is After the First Death. Primarily, that’s because, despite the fact that I know I have read it, I had no memory of it until I finished re-reading it today. But it just so happens that After the First Death also works well to wrap up this discussion of Cormier’s work. It contains almost every piece I’ve been discussing.
The novel revolves around a terrorist plot to hijack a bus of students and ransom them in exchange for the destruction of a covert branch of the United States. One of the heads of this covert branch sends his son, Ben, to negotiate with the hostages, and deliberately gives his son false information, knowing that the terrorists will torture him and he will “betray” this wrong information. The ploy works, and the terrorists are defeated, although they manage to kill one child as well as the bus driver, a young girl named Kate who had been filling in for her uncle. Ben narrates much of the first half of the novel, but in another twist ending, it turns out that he killed himself after “succeeding” on the bridge, because he could not live with himself for “betraying” his country. In the last third of the novel, Ben’s father takes over much of the narration, speaking to his son beyond the grave and begging for forgiveness. Most of the rest of the novel takes place on the bus, alternating viewpoints between Kate and two terrorists, a young man named Miro, and an older one named Artkin.
This novel really does have it all. In the realm of authority, Cormier explicitly compares Ben’s father to Artkin: both are in the grips of an unquestioning patriotism which causes them to do terrible things. Near the end of the book it is even suggested that Artkin is Miro’s father, setting up the parallel between them even further. Cormier has no sympathy for the terrorist cause, but in setting such a deliberate comparison between Ben’s father and Artkin, he suggests that he has little sympathy for the United States government–or at least its covert operations–either.
In the person of Miro, we have another character whose free will may have been taken from him. Kate ponders her increasing pity for him: “He was still a monster, of course. But who had made him a monster? This world, his world. Who was guilty, then: the monster of the world that created it?”
Guilt runs rampant throughout the novel. Ben’s misplaced guilt drives him to suicide, while his father’s entirely appropriate guilt drives him to possible mental illness. And of course sin and evil are at the heart of everything: the terrorists’ heinous activities; Ben’s father’s decision to use his son as a pawn; the evil of war; the list goes on.
I find After the First Death to be Cormier’s worst written novel, but aside from The Chocolate War and Fade, it may well be his most richly thematic book.
So that wraps it up. All I have left to do is give you my traditional ranking of the books:
- The Chocolate War
- The Rag and Bone Shop
- In the Middle of the Night
- After the First Death
- We All Fall Down
- I Am the Cheese
- 8 + 1
- Tunes for Bears to Dance To
- The Bumblebee Flies Anyway
- Beyond the Chocolate War
Take It Or Leave It
- Frenchtown Summer