PG-13: Risky Reads
4:00 pm
Tue May 29, 2012

'I Am The Cheese': A Nightmarish Nail-Biter

Originally published on Tue May 29, 2012 8:45 pm

Ben Marcus is the author of The Flame Alphabet.

I Am the Cheese opens with Adam Farmer riding his bike. He carries a package for his father and needs to get it to him fast. So far, it's a perfectly harmless adventure story.

But something is strange about this bike trip. First of all, Adam's father is far away. To get to him, Adam must ride from Massachusetts to Vermont, on a kid's bike with a single speed. Can you even do that? He's just begun, and he's already exhausted. The troubling questions come flooding in. Why is Adam alone? What's going to happen when it gets dark?

I Am the Cheese made me worry. I was 12, and until then, books were to be trusted, and their stories — the plots and characters — were exactly as they seemed. Had I heard of unreliable narrators? I had not. Did it occur to me that someone roughly my age could be separated from his parents, forced to make an impossible journey back to them? It did not. So I read it and I worried, and I couldn't put it down. I Am the Cheese became a nail-biter about my own survival. Somehow, within just a few pages, the author Robert Cormier had transformed me into Adam Farmer. I was on that bike, pedaling furiously, and I had better get back to my parents before the night turned cold.

I read this book on a perfect Saturday, a day of legendary sunshine. After tearing through the first few chapters, I announced to my parents that I'd be returning to bed to read this thing through to the end. They nodded their approval, perhaps wondering what sort of book would lead their young son to forsake a day of baseball.

Page by page the book gets scarier. Each chapter of Adam's bicycle adventure is sandwiched by an interview transcript in which he is questioned by a creepy doctor about mysterious people from his past. Adam tries to remember but can't. The interrogations are relentless, administered from some chilling government organization that seems to think Adam has a secret, if his name is even Adam.

What? At this point, my mind was officially blown. Who were those people who visited his home, the doctor asks Adam? Who was the "gray man" who would only speak to Adam's father down in his cellar? And what were Adam's parents always whispering about when they thought Adam was asleep?

Meanwhile, Adam's bike trip grows more difficult, but he presses on. A dog threatens his progress. His bike is stolen, and he must fight someone to get it back. The landscape bends and shimmers around him, as it would in a nightmare. Is this really New England? Why does it seem like Adam is stuck in a hamster wheel, pedaling for nothing, going nowhere? How on earth will he get back to his father?

I don't want to spoil this book because I'm hoping you can do as I did: sacrifice a day in the sunshine and read it through to the end. Trust me that the story grows only more urgent, taking on a terrifying logic, and when you find out where Adam has really been riding his bike, you'll feel unzipped and undone and so blown away you'll never read the same way again.

I Am the Cheese is ultimately the story of a boy who has lived through such troubling times that his mind, to save him from the truth, creates a new, safer world for him to inhabit. Adam Farmer was my first unreliable narrator. A narrator who is not a liar or deliberately deceitful even in the slightest. And yet he has fully broken with reality. Could this really happen? I emerged from my room and regarded my parents with new suspicion. Just what exactly was going on here?

PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now a new series about books for kids specifically young teenagers. We're calling it PG-13. It's around 13 that young readers begin to crave the adult stuff. Even if they know they're not quite ready, they're eager for a taste of grownup ideas. And for our series, authors will share the books that helped them make the hard turn into adolescence.

Here to kick things off is author Ben Marcus.

BEN MARCUS: Adam Farmer is riding his bike. He carries a package for his father and needs to get it to him fast. OK, so far, "I Am the Cheese," by Robert Cormier, is a perfectly harmless adventure story. But there's something weird about this bike trip. First of all, it's really far away.

Adam has to ride from Massachusetts to Vermont, on a kid's single speed bike. Can you even do that? He's just started and he's exhausted. Then harder questions: Why is Adam alone? What's going to happen when it gets dark?

This book made me worry. I was 12 and I trusted books. Their stories, the plots and characters, were straightforward. Had I heard of unreliable narrators? No. Did it occur to me that someone my age could be separated from his parents and have to find his way back to them? No.

So I read it and I worried and I couldn't put it down. It became this nail-biter about my own survival. I was Adam Farmer. I was on that bike and I had to get back to my parents. And then it gets worse.

After every chapter there's an interview with this creepy doctor, asking Adam about his past. Adam tries to remember but he's having trouble. And the questions keep coming. They're from some kind of government organization that seems to think Adam has a secret - if his name is even Adam. What?

At this point, my mind was officially blown. Who were those people who visited his home, the doctor asks Adam? Who was the Gray Man who would only speak to Adam's father down in his cellar? And what were Adam's parents whispering about when they thought Adam was asleep?

Meanwhile, Adam's bike ride is getting harder. A dog gets in his way. His bike is stolen. The landscape feels like a nightmare. Is this really New England? Why does it seem like Adam is pedaling but not getting anywhere?

I don't want to spoil this book because I'm hoping you'll read it like I did - all at once. Trust me that the story only gets more urgent. And when you find out where Adam has really been riding his bike, you'll feel unzipped and undone, and so blown away you'll never read the same way again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: Ben Marcus is the author of the book "The Flame Alphabet." The book that launched his mind into new works is "I Am the Cheese" by Robert Cormier.

At our website, you can find more PG-13 recommendations as well as lists of summer reads from our critics and correspondents. That's all at NPRBooks.org.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.