Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier

Formally one of my biggest gap books (YA from the 70s--who knew?) I've finally finished Robert Cormier's classic tale of teenage bullying and prep school cruelty THE CHOCOLATE WAR, and am here to tell you: there's a reason this one's considered a classic. Before I get to my reaction, let Goodreads fill you in on the basics:

Jerry Renault ponders the question on the poster in his locker: Do I dare disturb the universe? Refusing to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity school fund-raiser may not seem like a radical thing to do. But when Jerry challenges a secret school society called The Vigils, his defiant act turns into an all-out war. Now the only question is: Who will survive? First published in 1974, Robert Cormier's groundbreaking novel, an unflinching portrait of corruption and cruelty, has become a modern classic.

It's a little difficult to compare this book to modern YA, because plot conventions and rules for POV and so on were different back then, and there was really no such thing as YA at the time (my used mass-market paperback copy actually had the category crossed out, and YA written in with pen), but it's fascinating to see and think about what makes this story work anyway.

For example, it's told mainly from the point of view of its would be hero: Freshman Jerry Renault, in a 3rd Person POV that is a little hard to pin down on the limited-omniscient spectrum, but there are also sections that focus on the so-called antagonists, Archie Costello, his benefactor (and the acting headmaster of the school), Brother Leon, and countless other boys who attended Trinity with them, sometimes showing up even for only one short "scene."

And yet ... it works. Partially because Cormier's characters are so vividly drawn, and his understanding of the subtleties of human nature (especially cruelty and skilled manipulation) runs so deep, but also partially because it's a setting so ripe and ready for conflict and tension that very little in the way of forward moving plot is necessary.

Don't get me wrong, there is a plot, but it's so brilliant in its simplicity it could have been almost anything. Yes, there's a chocolate selling drive that any of us in our 30s will recognize well from our youths, and yes there is a "war" so to speak over who will sell the chocolates and who will not, but this story isn't about chocolate or school spirit or any of that nonsense.

This story is about human cruelty, and the lengths that we will go to perpetuate the positions of institutional power or social prominence that we may at times achieve. There are no real heroes, and no true villains, but every single character is portrayed with such brutal honesty, I was shocked to think how old the book was.

These are some of the stars:

Archie Costello - technically probably the antagonist, Archie is a real ass, a true sadist, and the kind of person I would probably avoid or get into a fistfight with in real life, but as a writer, he was probably my favorite character. There is something about the way he moves about the page that speaks to true artistry and mastery of the craft. Many people seem to agree.

Brother Leon - a real lowlife, Brother Leon is of course in a position of great power. As cruel as Archie, but less creative, to me he ended up playing second fiddle to our fabulous villain. I mean, he was great, to be sure, and Cormier beautifully played out the adult/teenager teacher/student administrator/underling dynamic on many occasions, and in any other book Brother Leon would be a great villain, but he gets upstaged by Archie too much.

Jerry Renault - technically the hero or protagonist, Jerry is great, and you have to love him for his determination, "I'm Jerry Renault and I'm not going to sell the chocolates," but he's also a bit of a brooding young fellow, and I can't help but wonder - in the 70s, was every single played on the football team called a guard? Seems like everybody plays guard in this book.

Anyway, this one is highly recommended for anyone who loves YA. It's a classic for a reason.

Has anyone read it? What do you think?


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