Biking With Crazy Boys: “I Am The Cheese” by Robert Cormier

I: The Unnecessary Introduction

When I was a teenager, the Young Adult sections of bookstores and libraries were overrun with novels attempting to accurately capture what it meant to be a teenager. These books achieved their goal by being as boring and predictable as all the teenagers I went to school with. So after trying a few of them I gave up and began skipping the Young Adult section altogether.

Except for when I snuck back to pick up another Robert Cormier novel.

Sure, he wrote novels featuring teenage protagonists, but they dealt with serious sociological and psychological themes. They weren’t coming-of-age stories or attempts to realistically depict teenage life. His characters’ pains weren’t growing pains, they were wounds inflicted by an unforgiving, inclusive society where, like the cheese, they stand alone. They were unsettling, paranoid, voyeuristic works about schizophrenics, conspiracies, neglectful parents, and terrifying authority figures.

Moving on to the actual review now…

II: The Necessary Review

Adam Farmer is not a well-adjusted teenager.

He is terrified of everything and everyone. His memories are confusing, and his perception of time is sometimes off by several years. He might be a mental patient. He might be taking a long bike ride to visit his sick father. He is a sad and lonely young man who doesn’t believe his life is ever going to get any better – and he’s right.

I’m not giving anything away by saying I Am the Cheese has an unhappy ending. That’s clear from the beginning. What else are we to expect from a book that has a high-school boy leaving his empty house after dumping a bunch of pills down the drain? Adam lives in a bleak, colorless world where the only thing he’s got going for him is playing hookey and taking a long bike ride to visit his hospitalized father in another town.

Fun, right? Well, it gets better.

When we’re not following Adam on the worst bike trip ever we’re treated to recorded sessions between Adam and a psychiatric which take place in a mental hospital sometime in the near future. So we know that even if Poor Adam gets to see his father, he will, at some point, be institutionalized. All that in less than ten pages.

The book’s greatest strength is its rhythmic and propelling story structure. Through interviews, recollections, and strangely coherent ramblings spanning Adam’s past, present, and future, an intricate, fascinating, and fully realized plot is developed. The detailed descriptions of Adam’s surroundings capture a harsh world far more concrete than his perceived reality. Those craving answers and neat resolutions should look elsewhere. It’s a subtle, challenging work that doesn’t answer to anyone but Cormier’s vision.

And what a sweeping, stunning, original vision it is.