What a shame it is I never read anything by Robert Cormier when I was a young adult. I am, instead, forced to read his books as an adult, and lament the fact that I didn’t have the pleasure of reading his stories a long time ago. I Am the Cheese is an excellent story for tweens and teens that has lost none of its edge since its first publication over thirty years ago.
The first book of Cormier’s I read, The Chocolate War, was good, even if it is what I would consider a boys’ book, with a plot that is exotic in its strangeness to this woman’s brain. I Am the Cheese has, I think, a more universal appeal. Adam, the protagonist, faces challenges that are more compelling for a wider audience, which makes it better, in my opinion.
Cormier goes back and forth between two separate parts of Adam’s life. One is told in straightforward prose, recounting the events of his bicycle ride through three states to visit his father and deliver a package to him. The other is told through interview transcripts, in which an official of unknown training and origin asks and guides Adam’s exploration of his family’s past.
The lovely thing about Cormier’s telling of Adam’s story is that you feel as though you are learning about Adam slowly. You know he has things that he is keeping hidden, and you can guess at some of them. The really delightful thing is that I was wrong a couple of times, so I was still surprised despite my attempts to be ahead of the author’s pacing.
Adam’s story ends up being very interesting, indeed. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to compare I Am the Cheese to something like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest of Catch-22 for both complexity and the fact that the story involves, in a very integral way, the question of the protagonist’s sanity. Adam’s life story leads him to question who his parents are and, consequently, who he is. Worse yet, he finds himself in a situation where he is constantly being asked questions about his family and who they truly are. This questioning is done in an institution that does not make itself clear to Adam; he’s not sure if he’s in a mental hospital, he’s not sure whether his interrogator is a psychiatrist, and he really doesn’t know how long he’s been where he is.
If there is any drawback to I Am the Cheese, it probably is the loose ends Cormier leaves in the story. We never find out what happens to Amy, Adam’s best friend. The story about his bike journey falls apart at the end, as well. While this might be a case of deliberate stylistic choice on Cormier’s part, I found it a little odd and, at the end, sad. I wasn’t quite sure what he was attempting to convey through how Adam’s trek concluded, but I didn’t find it all that satisfying.
Overall, I found Adam’s story to be one that kept my interest and kept me guessing. I’d imagine I Am the Cheese still pleases a young adult audience quite well, despite the lack of vampires or shallow cliques — or, worse yet, the lack of shallow vampire cliques. For the reader who likes realistic and intelligent fiction aimed at a slightly younger audience, one could do a lot worse, and not a lot better.