The Books That Made Me Vol. 1: I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier

on Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Mr. Grey was guilty. That much I knew. I stood at the front of the class, near Ms. Rapke's desk, and clutched the cue cards in my sweaty hands. The notes were scrawled in tiny script; I would barely have been able to read them, even if the ink hadn't smudged. Twenty pairs of eyes - tenth graders, precariously hanging from the cliff of childhood, set to fall at any moment; judgemental, cynical - all on me. It had come to this: my closing address.

Three weeks earlier, I begrudgingly picked up the book, fully prepared to hate it. The year was 1991, and Mt Scopus College was still in that late-80s miasma of literary staleness. The texts they forced us to read for English sucked, completely removed from our experience as teens. Indeed, I went back and reread most of them for this blog a few years back, hoping to discover that I was just too immature to appreciate them at the time. I was, after all, a dickhead as a kid. Alas, nope. I was right. They did suck. All of which is to say that I came to this book with close to no expectations, other than having had my interest slightly piqued by something Ms. Rapke said on the first day: At the end, we will be holding a trial. That was it. No details.

So began what has become a lifelong love affair with Robert Cormier's YA masterpiece I Am The Cheese (if you preferred The Chocolate War you are, of course, wrong). It may not be my favourite book of all time, but it's the one that I have read more than any other. I make a point of reading it at least once a year (I'd say I've now read it over thirty times), to remind me what it is like to be awakened to the potential of the novel as a form. It is my personal madeleine, a mnemonic that instantly transports me back to those few weeks in Year 10, but also a revelation: I find something new, something jaw-droppingly brilliant on each new reading. There is little by way of plot description that could do it justice. Adam Farmer is cycling to Rutterberg, Vermont to deliver a parcel to his father. Along the way he encounters various people and landmarks, all slightly eerie and unsettling. Something is not right. Interspersed between the chapters are transcripts of interviews. At first it seems he is undergoing some kind of therapy following a traumatic event. Brint, his interlocutor, is gentle, caring but disturbingly probing. It's as if he has an agenda. As the story progresses we learn that Adam is the only survivor of a car accident that killed his family. And that when it happened they were on the run. Adam's father was a journalist who uncovered and reported on a huge corruption scandal. Organised crime was implicated, but so too was the government. The family went into witness protection. Their handler was a man Adam knew as Mr. Grey. He visited regularly, whisking Adam's father into the basement where they speak in whispers. As Adam pieces together the fragments of his family's past, as his reality begins to drop out from under him, we are also forced to rethink everything we've read. Who is Brint? What is the purpose of these interviews? Could it be that Adam - whose real name we learn towards the middle of the book - might yet be the final victim?

I Am The Cheese is many things: structurally innovative, perfectly plotted, daring (for a book written in 1977, it sure was willing to ask some difficult questions about power) and a lot of fun. It also has a twist that is so astonishing, so deftly executed, that I can't help but think it remains a major cultural influence. I wouldn't be surprised if it was lingering in the backs of the minds of those who wrote The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense and even Fight Club (yes, I know that was Pahlaniuk). I can only imagine how it must have felt back in 1977, when readers didn't routinely question the reliability of their narrators.

Back to the classroom. The trial ran over two English periods, an hour and a half in all. Ms. Rapke was the judge. Other students played the roles of Mr. Grey, Adam and the defence lawyer. Guilt was to be decided by popular vote, in a show-of-hands poll of the rest of the class. I spent days honing my skills, watching Twelve Angry Men, LA Law and, the latest upstart in the world of legal drama, Law & Order. I cross-examined Mr. Grey, who did a barely passable job of inhabiting the character, with a fire this book had ignited in me; one that would carry on for the rest of my school days and ultimately launch me into a legal career, albeit one on the defence side of the criminal law fence. But it was the closing argument that sealed the deal. I had spent so long examining the book, finding the clues and the incriminating evidence that, should you pay close enough attention, is there to be found, that there was no room for doubting that not only was Mr. Grey responsible for the deaths of Adam's parents, but he was also planning to kill Adam. Ms. Rapke put it to the class: Who thought Mr. Grey did it? A brief moment of inaction. Silence. I don't think I could breathe. Then the hands went up. Every single one of them. His fate was sealed. And so was mine.

I read I Am The Cheese again this week and fell in love with it all over again. To think what the right book can awaken in a kid. And the right teacher. How lucky I was to have had Ms. Rapke. And Mrs. Auster, Ms. Swaitlo and Mrs. Jensen, all of whom encouraged my crazy love for the written word. Some of whom read the many extra stories I gave them each Monday after a weekend locked away in my room (me, not my teachers). Some of whom gave me books from their own collections, books they thought I'd like. To think, without them, and without Mr. Cormier, I might have become a corporate lawyer. Perish the thought.

PS Andrew Saffer, if you're reading this, I still have your copy. It was a twenty-eight year loan, yeah?