Robert Cormier’s “I Am the Cheese”


How did I miss Robert Cormier’s books growing up? Well, probably because they’re not the sort of thing I’d have read voluntarily as a child/tween, and they hadn’t yet quite reached “classic” status when I was in grade school. I Am The Cheese is a much more grittily realistic and much less straightforward book than anything I read for fun at the time. As it is, I’m glad I didn’t read it as a child; it would have put me off Cormier for good. This is another of the books I read about/was reminded of by reading Shelf Discovery, and on the whole I’m glad I did read it now as an adult.

I can only describe this as a “three in one” book: Cormier switches between
     1) a first person narrative which is presumably the “now” framing story–Adam riding his bicycle from Monument, Massachusetts to Rutterberg, Vermont to bring his father in hospital a present (never revealed what’s in the box)
     2) transcriptions of taped interviews between Adam and a purported psychologist, Brint, trying to piece together Adam’s childhood
     3) Adam’s own childhood memories, written in the third person.

As the disparate stories unfold, we find out that Adam’s parents are part of something resembling what we know today as the Witness Protection Program1 as a result of Adam’s father, a newspaper reporter, discovering government secrets and the resulting coverup. Adam discovers this subterfuge as a young teenager when he finds two new birth certificates for himself, with different birth dates, and overhears his mother call her sister when they’re not supposed to have any living relatives. When he takes his parents to task for this coverup, they finally explain…only to be hustled away by their government contact on a ‘vacation’ one step ahead of the people whose vengeance forced the family into hiding in the first place. Discrepancies begin arising as Adam bicycles farther into his trip to visit his father: the phone number for his friend in Monument has belonged to someone else for three years and the motel at which he remembers staying the previous summer with his parents has been out of business for almost four years.

(Warning: possible spoilers coming up in the next paragraph)

Don’t be sucked into the seeming ‘quick read’ nature of the book; the language is simple, though the structure a bit confusing. This is a perfect example of the “unreliable narrator” type of story, to the point that I had to re-read it and turn back and forth between sections to figure out what actually happened, and even then I’m not sure. I think the family got into a car accident caused by the group which had forced them into hiding; the mother died on the spot and the father was taken to a hospital, where he later died. Only Adam survived. The book ends on a note both perplexing and grim: the framing bicycle trip is no more than a hallucination born of Adam’s amnesia, as he is now living in a mental institution2, and the last transcript reveals Brint is not a doctor but a government agent, interrogating Adam to find out whether his father told him anything of what he’d learned. This is the third such interrogation, and is identical to the previous two; the report ends “Since Subject A is final linkage between Witness #599-6 and file Data 865-01, it is advised that (a) pending revision of Agency Basic Procedures (Refer: Policy 979) Subject A’s confinement be continued until termination procedures are approved; or (b) Subject A’s condition be sustained until Subject A obliterates.”

As for what to read next? The only suggestion I can come up with, other than Cormier’s other books, is Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintance: it’s more of an adult book, aimed at adult readers, but it has the similar ‘framing story’ of a trip intertwined with the story of a person gradually losing his grip on reality.

1The Federal Witness Protection Program had begun only a few years before the book was written
2admittedly, a very pleasantly homelike one

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