Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ice Picks in the Brain: The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier

As part of Banned Books Week, I thought I'd take a look at the works of Robert Cormier, a frequent resident of banned/challenged lists compiled by the American Library Association.  The following review was written 12 years ago for a now-defunct website, so I thought I'd resurrect it for Quivering Pen readers.  I'll have another essay about The Chocolate War here at the blog later this week.

In their best moments—when the words are firing on all cylinders—Robert Cormier’s stories are like ice picks to the brain.  In novels like The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese, Cormier creates worlds just slightly off-kilter to ours—as if we’re reading something which is upside down and reflected in a mirror—then, after a couple hundred pages, he suddenly slams the ice pick into the skull.  Skin, bone, brain, perception—all shatter with a single, revelatory paragraph.

You’ll usually find Cormier’s books in the young adult section of your local library, though—like fellow YA writers Lois Duncan, Judy Blume and Gary Paulsen—he really belongs to that netherworld of readers straddling both sides of the pubescent fence.  Adults will find plenty to engage them in Cormier’s characters, and tweenagers will think themselves daring to be reading books which feature a promiscuous young girl’s fixation with a serial killer (Tenderness) or the terminally ill teenage inmates of an experimental medical institution (The Bumblebee Flies Anyway).  Cormier dares to tell teenagers that the world is a dangerous, sometimes unhappy place.  You won’t find too many lip-glossed, blow-dried, poster-pretty TV teens in his pages.  For this unflinching adherence to the Way Things Are, Cormier often found his books banned by local school boards.

When I was in junior high, the school board was considering adding The Chocolate War to the school library's shelves, but it had “heard things” about it—rumors that it contained scenes of youth rebellion, anti-adult sentiment and (gasp!) actual four-letter words.  They asked my mother, who worked in the school’s administration office, to ask me to read it and render my opinion.  I guess none of the adults ever took it upon themselves to read The Chocolate War.  Pity.  It was one of those books which raises your teenage neck hairs in an electric tingle.  The kids in that Catholic prep school who refuse to sell chocolate bars for the annual fund-raiser are the kind of kids anti-establishment youths like me could relate to.  I loved the book and was frankly surprised at the level of adult writing in a “young adult” novel.  Here, I thought, was a writer who trusted young readers to grasp mature themes and did it without a whiff of condescension.  My mother was surprised that I’d liked it, too.  I think she and the school board had hoped I’d want to join them in a community book burning.

Cormier’s other teen classic I Am the Cheese was an even more skillful piece of brain-stabbing literature.  It, along with the decidedly adult novels of early-career Stephen King, formed an important part of my growth as a reader and writer.  I owe Robert Cormier a debt of gratitude for setting me on a dark and slippery course before I’d even graduated high school.  He, in his way, helped prepare me (and, undoubtedly thousands of other kids) for the sobering realities of adulthood.

And so, it was with a measure of sadness that I opened up Cormier’s latest novel, The Rag and Bone Shop, and saw it would be his last.  The author died in November 2000—somehow, I’d missed the news.  The author was 75 when the grim reaper showed up with his scythe.

The Rag and Bone Shop (the title is taken from a Yeats poem) is a nice way to close out a career.  It’s a slim book—more novella than novel—but it packs plenty of ice picks.

“I take real people and put them in extraordinary situations,” Cormier once said in an interview with School Library Journal.  “I’m very much interested in intimidation.  And the way people manipulate other people and the obvious abuse of authority.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in The Rag and Bone Shop, the bulk of which centers around an interrogation in a police station.  Jason Dorrant, enjoying his summer between the seventh and eighth grades, is accused of a horrible crime: the murder of a seven-year-old girl in his neighborhood.  A professional interrogator named Trent, with the reputation for getting blood out of a stone, is called in to shine the light in Jason’s eyes and pummel him with questions (though, actually, Trent’s methods are more along the lines of withholding water from the parched boy).  There are also political forces at work in the background, putting pressure on Trent to extract a confession from the stony Jason.

At only 176 pages, The Rag and Bone Shop moves quickly, never meandering from its ever-tightening course toward denouement.  Along the way, there are several trademark Cormier moments where he juxtaposes the sunny with the dark.  Here, for instance, is the jarring transition from one chapter (where Jason is happily contemplating his summer) to the next:
      The day loomed ahead, free, no classes, no demands, not even any household chores that he knew about, and he lay there feasting on the thought of the long summer days ahead.

[chapter break]

      The body of seven-year-old Alicia Bartlett was found between the trunks of two overlapping maple trees in dense woods only five hundred yards from her home.
In an interview published on Amazon shortly before his death, Cormier said, “I like to leave the reader with a sense that there are things still going on, that they don’t walk off into the sunset.  Or even if they walk off into the sunset, there’s probably a cliff waiting right around the corner.”

Just as Trent coils around Jason, Cormier twists the rubber tourniquet around the reader.  It’s a shorter, less fully-developed story than something like The Chocolate War, but The Rag and Bone Shop is relentlessly suspenseful—right down to the very last sentence where Cormier literally stabs the reader with a jolt.

As always, his strength lies in creating protagonists teenagers can relate to—characters who aren’t sugar-coated or fluffed with Hollywood meringue.  Jason is the kind of outsider who I, for one, could see every time I look in the mirror:
Not that they [other kids at school] were cruel or mean or made him the object of pranks or tortured him or anything like that. Mostly, they ignored him. He was rarely asked to join in their games or activities. He usually sat alone in the cafeteria and felt alone even when others were at the table. The other students seldom talked to him or asked him his opinion about anything. When they did encounter him in situations where he couldn’t be avoided, they addressed him in an absentminded way, didn’t seem interested in what he had to say, quickly turned their attention elsewhere.
Even at 75, Cormier was still connecting with readers six decades his junior.  This identification with teen angst, more than anything, is what made him such a popular author with “young adults” (and a few of us old adults, too).  He is, after all, the same author who once put his own home phone number in one of his books (I Am the Cheese) and graciously accepted calls from curious readers over the years.

And so, goodbye, Mr. Cormier and fare thee well on the journey through the darkness of death.  You’ll be missed by generations of readers.

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