Subway Literature: Challenging the Challenge (Part One), being some comments about The Chocolate War

Last week, inspired by the great discussions about banned books that were taking place out there on the intertubes, I decided it was time to read me some subversive literature. I picked three titles, one from the ALA’s top ten lists of banned and challenged books and two from an op ed piece written the week before that really ticked me off. Today I read the first of my picks, The Chocolate War. Now my head hurts worse than it did this morning, and for context I woke up very, very hungover (public service announcement: even at age 33, too much wine is too much wine).  It took an entire pint of espresso ice cream to make the hurting stop. On the other hand, having read Robert Cormier before, I pretty much knew what I was getting into.

My previous experiences with Cormier both hurt: I Am the Cheese and The Rag and Bone Shop. I read each one in a single sitting and then passed each one on to someone else. They are totally different stories, but they have certain things in common: they are both cautionary tales, deep and unsettling warnings. They are pessimistic. They portray teens at the mercy of adults at a time in their lives when they lack the awareness and confidence to know how to stand up to the grown-up aggressors in their lives. Cormier’s teens are not the feisty, scrappily resourceful kids that readers encounter in current YA. Cormier’s teens are everyday kids. They could be anyone, the kid upstairs, the kid down the street, or the kid you were at fourteen. In fact, having read three of his books now, I’m pretty sure the protagonists are pretty much interchangeable. The point is how they are manipulated, and the horrors that result. The kids could be anyone, because the point is that these things could happen to any kid at all. Unfortunately, Cormier knows that most kids, put into the situations he puts them into, will lose. The only hope is not to get into the situation in the first place. So, with that uplifting stuff in mind, let’s talk about The Chocolate War.

The Chocolate War was written in 1974, and more than 30 years later it’s still controversial. According to the ALA, it was the fourth most challenged book of the decade 1990-1999 and the third most challenged book of 2000-2009 due to offensive language, sexual content, violence, nudity, religious viewpoint, and the popular but nebulous unsuited to age group. Many negative reviewers on Amazon said they thought teens should not be asked to read this book because they understood the message to be, conform–that no good comes of rocking the boat.

The plot goes this way: Jerry Renault is a freshman at a Catholic prep school. The teachers turn a blind eye to the secret society called the Vigils, who harass the student body by giving “assignments,” very involved pranks which non-Vigil students are expected to complete or else. Brother Leon, the calculating, manipulative algebra teacher, enlists the help of the Vigil’s Assigner, Archie Costello, to make sure the school’s annual chocolate fundraiser doubles the previous year’s sales. At the same time, the Vigils assign Jerry the task of refusing to participate in the sale for the first ten days, which he does. The trouble is, when the ten days are up, he continues to refuse, for reasons he himself cannot articulate. At first the students, all of whom hate Brother Leon and are sick of the year-round fundraisers, cheer him on. But when chocolate sales begin to drop, the Vigils get involved again and turn the entire school against Jerry, with violent consequences.

I understand why people have problems with this book. I also can’t really say I recommend this book, but for one very subjective reason.  I just didn’t like the writing. It’s the best example of bad use of multiple points of view I’ve ever encountered. It puts us in the heads of characters for entirely unnecessary reasons. Without digressions about Kevin and Danny, Tubs and Howie, the book would probably have dropped a flabby twenty pages without breaking a sweat, and that alone would’ve been a substantial improvement. It dwells obnoxiously on boys obsessing obnoxiously about girls and has several (imho) entirely unnecessary references to masturbation. I can only imagine that this was Cormier’s effort to put himself back into the head of a boy in his early teens (he was fifty when The Chocolate War was published), but it just made me roll my eyes. Cormier is great at evoking the self-doubt and despair of his young characters, which I think evokes the internal world of teens much better than a million references to masturbation and how a girl’s breasts bounce under a sweater (although, not ever having been a teen boy, maybe I’m wrong). The unnecessary and the obnoxious aside, from a story perspective, I also take a little bit of an issue with the fact that Jerry’s rebellion begins by following the instructions of the Vigils and continues afterward for unspecified reasons. Jerry himself doesn’t know why he does it, and never seems to come to any realization other than dimly to have a wish to disturb the universe. Now, I could easily buy a kid doing something and not being sure why, and then sticking to it because going forward is easier somehow than going back. I could also well understand the dim wish to disturb the universe, especially given Jerry’s vague despair at the idea that adulthood means winding up living the disaffected life his father leads. I would actually have found the latter very compelling, if Jerry hadn’t initially refused to participate only because the Vigils told him to. It’s kinda hard to get behind a rebellion when it begins with following bad orders and lacks any kind of conviction.

Here’s my biggest complaint, though. I just don’t think the author succeeded in getting his message across. I don’t think Cormier wrote this book intending the message to be conform, but I can see why people read it that way–and a lot of people do. I also don’t think the message was, kids, do your own thing like Jerry does. I think the intended audience isn’t the potential iconoclastic kids of the world, but their peers and classmates–the kids who have the option of speaking up when they see injustice or allowing themselves to be manipulated by their own fears into silence or worse. But I don’t think that’s remotely clear in the text.  Which is maybe the best argument for this book being used in a classroom setting, where discussion can help tease out that message. One voice of reason can be enough to break the momentum of a mindless mob and inspire others to speak up, too.

What about the rest of it?

Nudity? Can’t remember any actual nudity. Sexual situations…meh. Despite my complaints, they’re pretty tame. I don’t think there’s a single character in the book that’s actually sexually active. Self-abuse references–and by the way, we are mercifully not asked to read about any, shall we say, completed acts–and one kid speculating that his girlfriend might let him “get under her sweater” on her birthday. Color me shocked. Maybe it feels more gratuitous than it would be otherwise because it also feels so unnecessary? I don’t know. It’s lame, but it’s hardly explicit.

Offensive language…honestly, less than five hours after finishing the book I honestly can’t remember any offensive language. The phrase “jacking off” is used, and “goddam” at least once, but other than that I really don’t remember anything. Violence? Oh, my, yes. At the end. But even that’s not terribly horrifying–it’s doesn’t touch, for instance, any of the horrific scenes in Lord of the Flies. More importantly, I think the descent into violence made sense from a story perspective, so I give it a pass.

Religious viewpoint: well, it’s a Catholic high school with at least one truly awful brother teaching algebra, a man who displays some shockingly non-Christian behavior. Archie gives a little speech at the beginning in which he calls Jesus “a guy who walked the earth for thirty-three years like any other guy but caught the attention of some PR cats.” And there are those pesky references to a certain sin that involves spilling certain bodily fluids. Meh. Whatever.

So, my entirely subjective verdict? It’s disturbing on a number of levels and presents its story more or less without hope. As far as I’m concerned, the best argument against this book’s being used in a classroom is the sub-par writing. I wish The Chocolate War was as lean and mean as either of the other two Cormier books I’ve read, because I think it would’ve been a much more powerful book, but I do think there’s an important message in there, one teens can benefit from. You’ve just got to get past the distracting stuff, all of which, distracting though it is, is pretty tame by any but Victorian standards.

So I concede flabby writing, unnecessary obnoxiousness, and unclear message, but does that really justify this being the 3.5th most-challenged book of the last twenty years? Seems a little silly to me. What are your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *