Cormier’s next novel, I Am the Cheese, was a departure from his first success in a number of ways. The multiple points of view of the first novel become, in the second, a mosaic of perspectives that challenge the reader and build the tension in the novel until its very last word.
Even the innocuous opening of the novel—“I am riding the bicycle and I am on Route 31 in Monument, Massachusetts, on my way to Rutterburg, Vermont, and I’m pedaling furiously”—raises mysteries: Who is riding, and why? The second chapter only adds to readers’ confusion, for it starts with a transcript of what appears to be a counseling session between a boy, Adam Farmer, and a psychiatrist. Is Adam trying to recall his own lost history, or is his interrogator trying to get information from him?
What is slowly revealed, as Adam uncovers his past for the reader and for the mysterious Brint, is that his father had been a reporter for a small New York State newspaper who discovered evidence of government corruption and testified in Washington about what he knew. When attempts were made on his life, Anthony Delmonte joined a witness protection program, and he and his wife and small son, Paul, were given new names and identities and moved to Monument, Massachusetts. The new identities do not shield them, however; Grey, the government contact responsible for the family, is apparently a double agent. The family is forced to flee Monument, and Adam’s parents are killed. In the stunning shock of the last chapter, it is revealed that Adam/Paul’s “furious” bike ride has only been around the grounds of a hospital where he is a so-called patient, and where some malevolent and mysterious government agency has confined him, after murdering his parents, until they can decide what is to be done with him or (as the last paragraph reveals) “until termination procedures are approved.”
This is no simplistic young-adult work; rather, it is a thriller in which the reader is left hanging until the very end—and beyond, in fact, for the boy’s fate is intentionally unresolved. Similarly, it is no didactic novel: If there is a lesson here, it is the same one as in many adult thrillers, to trust no one, not even—or especially not—the government. Like The Chocolate War, however, there is also the theme of the young innocent trying to establish his identity in a violent world where the authorities (government agents here, school officials in the earlier novel) are doing everything they can to destroy the will of the young protagonist. The novel was chosen one of the best books of the year for young readers by both The New York Times Book Review and the Young-Adult Services division of the American Library Association.
As with all Cormier titles, the literary technique is prominent and facilitates meaning and power. The point of view and plot are both structured so that the tension of the novel is increased until the very last page. (The film that was made of the novel in 1983 only turned the suspense into confusion.) As in The Chocolate War, the literary language and imagery reinforce meaning. The title comes from the children’s song, “The Farmer in the Dell.” Adam is himself the “farmer,” at least in one of his identities, but in the end he does “stand alone,” like the cheese of the last line of the song.
An unnamed young man is riding his bicycle, dressed in his father’s Army fatigue jacket and wool cap, or took. He is fearfully yet determinedly making a long trek from Monument, Massachusetts, to Rutterberg, Vermont. He carries a package for his father and, just before leaving home, discards some medicine.
The narrative switches to a transcript of a discussion between questioner “T” (self-identified as “Brint”) and subject “A.” The goal appears to be to elicit memories from A, and among the topics discussed are an abrupt move the family made when A was of preschool age and had the name Paul Delmonte. The transcript—composed of both...
(The entire section is 3,268 words.)