Monday, July 2, 2012

I AM THE CHEESE/Robert Cormier

It's pretty sad that I never heard of Robert Cormier before his death. I saw a review of a new edition of I Am the Cheese on NPR's website and decided to pick the book up from the library.

Adam Farmer is a 14-year-old boy trying to take a package from Monument, Massachusetts to his father in Rutterburg, Vermont. In order to do so, he must abandon his mother and his best friend, Amy Hertz.

He has a little more than $39—enough for a couple of overnight stays in hotels and some food for the 70+ mile trip. He's anxious to see his father, so one morning he pours all his pills down the bathroom sink, gets the package, and takes off.

The novel flips back and forth between Adam's journey and an ongoing conversation between a patient and a doctor. We learn that Adam's family was in an early version of the Witness Protection Program; as an investigative reporter his father revealed some smarmy secrets of a vast criminal network (what the secrets were was never revealed) and the family had to go into hiding. They're protected by Grey, FBI agent #2222, a character as featureless and vague as his name.

As details from Adam's old life emerge in from the patient, Adam runs into trouble on the road. A strange voice answers at Amy's number and claims to have had that number for three years—a statement that confuses Adam since it hasn't been nearly that long since he's seen her. He also encounters three hoodlums who terrify him on a lonely stretch of road, and his bike is stolen. Additionally, he encounters a man who appears to be a child molester.

Yet it's the conversations that are most disconcerting. They're undated, but slowly we realize the patient is Adam himself. (Or at least, I slowly realized it.) During these conversations we start to gather that he's a patient in a mental hospital, and he doesn't remember very much. As he does remember, we start to see why it's so difficult for him to seize upon his painful past.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, learning the origins of the title was the most fun part for me. I didn't know the entire sequence of the nursery rhyme "The Farmer In the Dell." Nor did I know that not only is it a nursery rhyme, but a game. The last verse is:

The cheese stands alone
The cheese stands alone
Heigh ho the derry-o
The cheese stands alone

the last stage of the game. The goal of the game is to not be the cheese. If you are the cheese, you've lost the game. But there's a dual meaning in that throughout the novel, you can't escape the overwhelming sense that in many ways, Adam was and is the cheese—not only the loser of the game, but the bait of the opponent in order for the game to continue. 

*I actually didn't read the 30th anniversary edition of this book, but I love the cover so much, I added it here. I think it conveys the spirit of the story better than other covers I've seen. I will definitely be reading more by Cormier. I'm only sorry I discovered him so late. 


Jane Steen said...

I added it, Stacy. I love unreliable narrator books.

stacy said...

It's a deep—but quick—read, Jane. Great stuff.