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The Completist: Robert Cormier, Wrap-Up

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.

after the first deathThe 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
  • Fade
  • Tenderness

Minor Masterpieces

  • The Rag and Bone Shop
  • In the Middle of the Night
  • Heroes

Must Reads

  • After the First Death
  • We All Fall Down
  • I Am the Cheese
  • 8 + 1

For Fans

  • Tunes for Bears to Dance To
  • The Bumblebee Flies Anyway
  • Beyond the Chocolate War

Take It Or Leave It

  • Frenchtown Summer

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The Completist: Robert Cormier, Part Four

I swallowed the wafer, telling myself: Think of it as a wafer, no communion, no the Body of Christ.

Kneeling, I waited for thunder and lightning, for the walls of the church to crumble, the pillars to tumble against each other. But nothing happened.

That was the worst thing of all (Fade)

I’ve been talking a lot in these posts about sin and evil, and the consequences of evil on the people sinned against. Today, we’re going to look at a few books that focus on guilt: that is, the consequences of sin on the sinner himself. We saw some of this play out in of Tunes for Bears to Dance To and Heroes (from Part One of this series), but I’ll offer a few more examples.

8 + 1A story called “Mine on Tuesdays” from 8 + 1 shows the implications of a father’s guilt over leaving his wife and daughter. The story is set on a Tuesday, the father’s visitation day. Father and daughter go to an amusement park, where the father allows his daughter to ride on a particularly scary ride, despite his misgivings. He doesn’t accompany her because he is hungover. As his daughter becomes more and more scared on the ride, and then refuses to talk to him after the ride is over, he realizes that letting her go on the ride alone was a possibly irredeemably betrayal. He reflects on how his guilt made him give in to anything his daughter ever asked for: “All those why nots I had tossed her–not bouquets of love, but bribes.”

Another story of guilt, which I’ve mentioned in each of my last two posts, is We All Fall Down. In Part Two, I briefly mentioned the crucial betrayal: Buddy is a screwed up, but basically decent kid, who goes along with a gang—led by a boy named Henry—to do some random vandalism. When a girl who lives there unexpectedly comes home, Henry attacks her. He attempts to rape her before pushing her down a flight of stairs, leaving her in a coma. Technically speaking it seems implausible that Buddy could have done much in the moment, but both he and Cormier hold him accountable for guilt by association:

Thinking of that house, how he had stood there, doing nothing, while Harry raped a girl. A kid, for crying out loud. . . . Glancing at Harry now as he turned onto North Boulevard, he decided that Harry was Frankenstein, the doctor who created the monster.

Who is the monster then? Buddy wondered. Remembering his part in the vandalism and his inability to stop what they had done to the girl, he thought: Maybe it’s me. But I am not a monster. Or is that what all the monsters said?

Buddy attempts to make amends for his guilt by befriending the girl’s sister. They develop a relationship, which is brought to an abrupt end by her discovery of his complicity in the vandalism and assault.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Catholic of Cormier’s time (or even today), his characters frequently feel deeply guilty even when they have done little or nothing wrong. Sometimes, Cormier thinks this overactive guilt is a good thing, as in a pair of stories in 8 + 1.  In “Another of Mike’s Girls” the teenaged protagonist falls out of love with his girlfriend, and complains to his father that he feels “like a rat” for breaking up with her. His father responds, “You should feel like a rat . . . You can’t help what happens to your emotions, Mike. … It would be terrible to fake it with Jane or anybody else. If you didn’t feel bad about it, you’d really be a rat.”

In “My First Negro” the stakes are considerably higher, but the moral is about the same. In a story taking place in the 1930s, the narrator befriends a black boy from a very poor district of Monument. He becomes involved in a fairly harmless, or possibly even positive, prank—he and some friends steal fruit and vegetables from the garden of a rich resident, and actually intend to give them away in the black neighborhood. But they choose to disguise themselves by darkening their faces with cork, and when the prank goes sour, they end up inadvertently offending the black community. Like the denouements of Tunes for Bears to Dance To and Heroes the damage has been done to their relationship, but Cormier wants us to see the narrator’s guilt from this as a positive growth experience.

in the middle of the nightWhile perhaps not as unambiguously positive, In the Middle of the Night finds a similar sort of nobility in guilt. The novel is primarily focused on a teenaged boy named Denny, but his life is heavily impacted by the guilt his father, John Paul, feels for a long ago accident. John Paul was an usher at a movie theater. On a particularly busy night, he was sent by the manager up to the (closed off) balcony to check on a strange sound. While up on the balcony, it collapsed on the crowd below, killing 25 children. John Paul has been cleared of any wrongdoing by the police, but he feels intensely guilty, and the town blames him as well, harassing him with late night phone calls and more. The main plot revolves around Denny’s decision whether or not to try to clear his father’s name with a local reporter. In the end, he decides to honor his father’s wish to continue to answer “no comment” to questions about the incident. He is swayed in large part by this speech from John Paul:

Those people, twenty-five years ago, the ones the children left behind. Father and mother. The foster parents, sisters and brothers, what loss, what pain they felt. Time heals, like in the old saying. But for some, time does not heal. The pain stays, and it has to go someplace. It comes to me.

fade2The final novel to discuss here is Fade, where the narrator’s guilt is decidedly less benign. For some reason, it took me a long time to get to Fade, in Cormier’s work—possibly because it is his longest novel (although still only about 300 pages). All I can say is that it is a stunning piece of work—perhaps on par with the brilliance of The Chocolate War.

The novel is centered around narrator Paul Moreaux’s relationships with his uncle Adelard and his aunt Rosanna, neither of whom he has seen in many years prior to the opening of the novel. It is the relationship with Adelard that drives the plot—it is he who explains to Paul the secrets of the “fade”, the family ability to turn invisible. But it is Rosanna who drives the emotional core of the novel.

Looking at the plot through the trope of invisibility, the novel is a kind of dark fantasy thriller. Paul begins to use his “fading” to spy on various people throughout town, and finally at almost precisely the halfway point in the novel, uses it to murder the town’s quasi-mafia leader Rudolphe Toubert, who has been crucial in busting his father’s union. Following this murder, Paul resolves never to fade again, but also to track down the next recipient of the fade, who is always a nephew of the current fader. He eventually finds Ozzie, the illegitimate son of Paul’s sister Rose, who gave Ozzie up for adoption.  Ozzie has had to learn about the fade by himself, and he is a young man brimming with hatred.  At a young age, he murders his adoptive father, and plots to murder the nuns who take him in afterwards. When Paul reaches him, it is too late for Ozzie. Paul and Ozzie become locked in a death match, and Paul eventually kills Ozzie, in stunningly similar language to his murder of Toubert.

fadeThis thriller is fantastic, but Cormier adds another layer. At the exact moment Paul kills Toubert, the novel abruptly shifts, and we are told that what we have been reading is an unpublished manuscript by an author named Paul Roget. His niece and his literary agent are reading it and discussing whether Paul—now deceased—intended it to be a memoir or a novel, and the reader is strongly encouraged to begin to doubt the accuracy of first half of the novel, though Cormier gives us ample evidence for both positions.

This metafictional device makes available a completely different reading of the novel, one which is focused on Paul Roget’s attempts to come to grips with his guilt over his relationship with his aunt Rosanna.  Paul is sexually obsessed with Rosanna, masturbating to his fantasies of her, and confessing his love to her. His confession of his love, in the form of poem to her, precedes a scene of excruciating, embarrassing power that is impossible for me to summarize:

“It’s beautiful,” she said, her voice gentle as she held the poem in her hands, her eyes liquid blue as always but the liquid now resembling tears.

My own eyes were fastened on her breasts—it was beyond my power to look elsewhere—and for a glorious moment I feasted on them while I squirmed before her, face flushed, juices thick in my mouth. Then I felt the surge of ecstasy developing and struggled, bringing my knees together, stricken, as she looked at me, the poem still in her hand, her expression soft and tender. I bent forward, trying to make myself small and, at the same time, to hold back that quick beautiful spurt but unable to do so. As our eyes met, my body quivered with delight. I had never known such piercing happiness, such an explosive moment of sweetness. I trembled, shivered, as if strong winds were assailing me. And then, as always, came the swift shame and flush of guilt but this time worse than ever before because it had happened while she watched and I had seen her eyes grow puzzled and then alarmed and the—what? I could not read her expression—surprise, disgust?—I saw her mouth shape itself into an oval and heard her voice.

“Oh, Paul.”

Could she see the stains on my trousers?

“Oh, Paul,” she said again. Such a sadness in her voice but beyond sadness. Accusation, maybe, or betrayal.

After this amazing scene, and even before Paul learns how to “fade”, he begins following Rosanna, and learns her secrets—she had a brief relationship with Rudolphe Toubert in her teens and became pregnant. She went to Canada to have the baby and give it up for adoption, but the baby died at birth. It is her shame over her pregnancy that kept her away from Paul’s family so long, and she is back in Monument primarily to ask Toubert for money to open a small business.

frenchtown summerWith this knowledge, and with the knowledge that the fade may be a fictional device, Paul’s account of Toubert’s murder takes on new significance. Perhaps Paul had nothing to do with Toubert’s murder, but is acting out in fiction his jealous hatred toward the man who impregnated his beloved aunt. Of possible relevance here is a poem Cormier wrote in his collection Frenchtown Summer. In the poem, the narrator, in an angry fit tells a kid to die:

Three days later,
Hector Henault was crushed
like my goggles
under the wheels of a Mack truck
on Mechanic Street
near Fifth.
They said he died instantly.
I was awestruck
by my power to kill.

Perhaps what is going on in Fade is a portrayal of a similar kind of guilt—Paul wished for Toubert to die, and then he was murdered. In his fictional reworking, he then places the blame for Toubert’s death on himself.

Another piece of evidence that the plot of Fade is primarily a fictional reworking of Paul’s sexual guilt is in the spying Paul does while fading. Apart from the murder of Toubert, there are two main set pieces of Paul fading, both involving illicit sex. In the first, Paul observes a girl with whom he is infatuated prostituting herself to a much older shop keeper in town. In the second, after befriended a classmate and his twin sister, he breaks into their house to spy on them, and comes across them kissing. Incredibly, rather than leaving in surprise, he stays invisible, and watches and listens as they have sex.

Cormier—or rather Roget—could have had Paul spy on any number of things while invisible, so it is telling that the primary thing he observes is sex.  Moreover, it is difficult not to parallel these two encounters with Paul’s obsession with Rosanna—the first involves a large age difference, and the second an incestuous pairing: together these represent the two hurdles towards a real, rather than fantasy, relationship with Rosanna.

The second half of the novel does not fit quite so neatly into this pattern, but there are certain evocative passages. Most telling is the similarities between Rosanna’s and Rose’s illegitimate pregnancies (even down to their names), so that Paul’s search for his nephew becomes another attempt to connect with his aunt. Beyond that, though it is not driven by sexual angst, this entire section is again centered on Paul’s guilt: Paul’s search for Ozzie and attempt to help him use the fade responsibly are a direct reaction to his guilt over the murder of Toubert, and his attempt to ensure that it does not happen again. The tragedy of the novel is that he can only stop Ozzie by reenacting his own worst sin.

I think I have exhausted the theme of guilt in Fade, but there is much, much more to this novel—especially the second half, in which Ozzie’s fade seems to bring on a kind of schizophrenia. Suffice to say that anyone interested in Cormier should most certainly put a high priority on reading this one.

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The Completist: Robert Cormier, Part Three

What happens when your free will is no longer free? The novels we’ll look at in today’s post feature characters whose mental and physical conditions have taken away all or part of their free will. This is a serious problem for Cormier’s worldview, and one he spends considerable time examining, especially in the masterful Tenderness. But before we get to Tenderness, we have to deal with I Am the Cheese.

i am the cheeseHey, did you know that Adam is totally reliving the same day over and over again? Oops, should I have said “spoiler alert”? Seriously, though, the famous twist ending of I Am the Cheese reveals that 1) the plot in which Adam has been biking across New England to bring a package to his father has been going on almost entirely inside Adam’s head and 2) Adam has been institutionalized by Witness Protection for three years and has been reliving the events of the book every year as an interrogator tries to find more information about who killed Adam’s parents. It’s a very clever twist, but it has serious implications for how we respond to Adam as a character. What, exactly, is the point of Adam’s trek across “New England”? What, in fact, is the point of Adam’s existence at all? I think there are plenty of answers to that question, but I don’t find any in the text of the novel—partially because Cormier leaves the revelation of Adam’s existence until the very end of the novel. I love I Am the Cheese, but to be honest, the second and third times I read it, I became much less interested in the sections that I knew were going on in Adam’s head, and felt that the novel suffered from my knowledge of the ending. And frankly, I think the questions I just posed about Adam’s existence bothered Cormier too, because he returned to a similar scenario, with a more complete answer to these questions, in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway.

bumblebeeIn The Bumblebee, we are again in a medical facility, and again we have a character, Barney Snow, with extreme memory loss, although in this case, his memory loss is intentional—he has agreed to participate in a series of psychological experiments on memory, in part because he wants to erase his knowledge that he has a terminal illness. But this time, we have full knowledge of the institutional setting from the beginning, and we learn of the extent of the memory experiments in a slow reveal throughout the novel. By eschewing the twist end of I Am the Cheese, Cormier gives himself room to contemplate the implications of Barney’s situation. His answer is in the title of the book. According to a (completely bogus) urban legend, the common bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly due to some (usually unstated) law of aerodynamics. The punchline is: and yet “the bumblebee flies anyway.” Regardless of its (non-existent) scientific provenance, it is a useful metaphor for fighting the impossible fight. And that is exactly what Barney does. One of his fellow terminal patients is determined to have a last joyride before he dies, and Barney concocts a quixotic* plan: they find a wooden car, with working wheels, in a nearby junkyard; they dismantle the car piece by piece, and then reassemble it inside their hospital; finally, Barney and his friend will ride the car off the roof in a blaze of glory. In the end, neither Barney nor his friend can go through with plummeting to their deaths, but they still send the car—dubbed “the Bumblebee”—flying off the roof. A third co-patient who helped them, Billy, asks them why they didn’t get in the car, to which Barney replies in his head: “Didn’t Billy understand? They didn’t need to fly. The Bumblebee would fly for them.” As the novel ends, Barney is finally succumbing to his illness, confined to his bed, barely conscious, and possibly still lacking important memories, but he has still triumphed:

In the bed he now occupied he was surrounded by a grayness, and out of the grayness came faces. The faces were always sad and unsmiling. He wanted to tell them: Hey, laugh, or at least smile a little, because the Bumblebee is still flying and we made it fly.

I Am the Cheese and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway have clear connections in plot and theme. Cormier came at a similar theme of restricted free will from a totally different angle in another matched pair of novels: Tenderness and We All Fall Down. In both of these novels, one of the main characters is clearly mentally ill—Cormier doesn’t diagnosis his characters, but the main villain in We All Fall Down seems to have some form of schizophrenia, or perhaps even multiple personalities; and one of the two protagonists of Tenderness has some form of psychopathy or sociopathy.

we all fall downWe All Fall Down engages in yet another of Cormier’s beloved twist endings. Throughout the novel we follow a character who calls himself The Avenger, who we are meant to believe is 11-years-old and out to avenge a random attack on a neighbor of his. What we find out at the end is that The Avenger—his real name is Mickey—is actually a middle-aged man. When he was 11 he murdered a bully in his neighborhood and ever since he has reverted, in some sense, to being 11 any time he has felt the need to be “The Avenger”, meaning to kill again. The psychology may or may not be realistic, but Cormier attempts to make a distinction between The Avenger and Mickey, and the climax has one of the protagonists set Mickey against The Avenger psychologically. The point, for our purposes, is that Cormier seems to want to absolve Mickey of The Avenger’s crimes, because The Avenger is a type of compulsion. Like I Am the Cheese, the twist comes too late in the novel to allow for a full examination of its implications. Moreover, Mickey is actually a side character in the book. And so, once again, Cormier returned to a similar set of circumstances to grapple with the issues at greater length.

tendernessTenderness has two main plotlines, which eventually intersect, but it is primarily an examination of Eric Poole, a serial killer who seems utterly incapable of feeling guilt or remorse. His particular compulsion—parallel, in some ways to The Avenger’s—is to kill young women, and her describes his murders as imbuing him with a sense of “tenderness.” Meanwhile, Lori, a very damaged young woman who habitually uses sex to get what she wants—CDs, money, and a car ride are the three we see in the first several pages—develops a fixation on Eric, and sets out to meet him.

Through a strange but strangely plausible set of circumstances, they end up on a highly bizarre road-trip, and Lori is absolutely determined to believe that Eric is or can be “nice.” And seemingly through her sheer force of will, she begins to have an impact on him. Eric is convinced that he will have to kill Lori, not out of the “tenderness” he needs, but because she knows a critical fact that could return him to prison. But it is more difficult to kill her than it should be: “Now that he had condemned her, he felt a rush of tenderness towards her, not the kind he found with the other girls . . . but a different tenderness, wanting to be gentle with her.”

Even after he makes an attempt, Lori persists in her beliefs. She tells him (and it seems to be genuinely true), “You’re the only person who’s ever treated me with respect. And I trust you . . .”, provoking the following reverie from Eric:

As he watched her tongue licking jelly from her cheek, he wondered what it would be like to kiss the jelly off that cheek, to feel her body close to him, not like with the others, but stopping before the act was completed. Maybe there would be tenderness in all that. . . . He realized she knew all about him but she didn’t care.

Cormier does not go overboard with this—he makes it clear that Eric retains his compulsion to kill, but the friendship he develops with Lori, perhaps the first real friendship either has ever had, does provoke a genuine change in him, to the extent that he actually tries to save Lori’s life when she falls in a river (despite the fact that her death would be advantageous to him). Of course, we know how Cormier loves his twists, and the kicker is that he fails to save Lori, and the police use her death—believing he drowned her intentionally—to send Eric back to prison.

*See what I did there with the “fight the impossible fight”?

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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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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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