Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Sweet Darkness

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier, Read by George Guidall, Recorded Books LLC, 1993

I first became aware of the work of author Robert Cormier through the novel Fade, three interlocked stories about a boy, later a grown man, who discovers he has the ability to become invisible. Much like Plato’s moral of the legend of Gyges’ Ring as told in The Republic, this power comes with dark and commanding temptations. I was particularly taken with the poetic subtleties of Cormier’s somewhat bleak take on humanity and his rather matter-of-fact nihilism, then I was surprised to learn that he was a celebrated children’s author (in that oxymoronic category of “young adult”).

As with other authors, Cormier’s name was added to my list of writers to investigate, though he always managed to somehow slip down the ranks of pressing books I needed to read at that very moment. Perhaps it was because Fade was a fantasy tale and I had grown out of my phase of enchantment with that genre, or perhaps it was because bigger literary luminaries beckoned, but I never got around to doing so until just recently.

Rightly celebrated, Cormier’s first novel, The Chocolate War, is a surprisingly fierce, frank, and pessimistic view of the temptations and perversion of power at the all boys’ Trinity High School in the late seventies. What is shocking in reading the book is how open its depiction of boys’ lives is when compared with today’s more bowdlerized younger readers’ fare. You will not find Harry Potter so lasciviously fondling his wand as Emile Janza, The Chocolate War’s brutal, mindless sociopath, does herein. While Jerry Spinelli manages to plow the same black earth as Cormier, he too pulls his punches, coming only so close to the bone, where Cormier never flinches, reaching deep down inside for the darkest bits. The book’s climactic “fight,” an event staged by the book’s villain, Archie Costello, between Janza and the novel’s hero, Jerry Renault, is a psychotic raffled-off beating in which the worst blow landed is Costello’s manipulation of Jerry into wanting to hurt Janza, wanting to taste blood. It is a battle in which we ourselves are stripped down to our own base selves as readers, wanting it too, wanting Jerry to finally fight back, to lash out.

As per the necessities of most classic children’s stories, we have a dead mother haunting the book and a father who is removed, abstracted, though fundamentally good. Jerry’s father boxes his feelings away which distances him emotionally, and also works staggered shifts as a druggist, physically removing him when he’s working and through his bizarre sleep patterns when at home. In this amoral world, you are fundamentally alone, a theme underlined by the absence due to illness of the school’s principal and the assumption of power by the corrupt Brother Leon. The scene in which Brother Leon blackmails a student into doing his bidding shows the toxicity of abuse of power. The student thinks to himself that if it was possible for a teacher to blackmail someone, an authority figure nasty and brutish as other people, then the world itself must be a sickening cesspool. It is the destruction of the entire world, the poisoning of a life.

The central plot focus of the novel is a chocolate selling scheme cooked up by Brother Leon and a series of pranks expected by the upperclassmen gang, The Vigils, from the younger students. Jerry is tasked with the job of refusing to sell the chocolates for a certain period of time which enrages Brother Leon. When he makes it through to the end of his prank duration, Jerry has come to the conclusion that something about the resistance in his actions appeals to him and he continues on with it. Incensed, Brother Leon demands that the leader of The Vigils, Archie Costello, bend Jerry to his will. The resulting showdown is a classic retelling of the sole person who stands up against the mob.

If you are the kind of sentimentalist who believes in long odds and never-say-die-can-do spirit and that you can fight City Hall, you’ve been reading too many comic books. Cormier works a nihilism so deep it’s a wonder such a children’s book became such an accepted classic, school list makers typically preferring uplift to despair. The book has faced its share of censorship, as have others of Cormier’s novels, yet with its unflinching look at the teen years, Cormier has managed to tap into that amazingly bottomless feeling of isolation and loneliness that is common to nearly all childhoods. Kids would have made it a success anyway, but that it’s become accepted as a dark horse in the canon is fascinating.

What gives the book its power, once you’ve gotten past its complex plotting, its sweetly sinister prose, and its ability to sucker punch, is the various levels of interpretation it allows. The Chocolate War can be read as the archetypal battle of the one against the many; it can be read merely as a story of political conflict during the decades of conflict; the sick and absent headmaster and the running of the school by the evil Brother Leon could be read as an allegory of a debauched church abusing its power in the fundamental absence of god; and you could even see The Vigils as a rogue intelligence agency, the CIA from back in the days, allowed to do certain illegal things because it helped keep the populace cowed and under control.

Accomplished reader George Guidall clearly relishes this narration, his voice simply dripping with poison during the heated scenes of villainy. He subtly invokes the serpent when reading Brother Leon and the slickness of politicos in his portrayal of Archie Costello while managing a sort of simple, earthy goodness in Jerry Renault. This multifaceted characterization only serves to emphasize The Chocolate War’s many levels of meaning.

Robert Cormier’s writing is brutal, honest, and chilling, though you may feel the strong desire to read something light and airy, something innocent and wholesome when you are finished. It is a body of work of shadows and dark despair, while at the same time there exists throughout it always the fragile reed of hope and possibility. As the poster reads inside Jerry’s locker, “Do you dare to disturb the universe?” Even though Cormier paints the world as though it were likely your repayment for such a disturbance will be disfiguring, one can clearly sense he remains on the side of the angels, on the side of those who would disturb our herd instincts, no matter what the cost.

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