Pantheon Books, 1974
Jerry Renault, Our Hero
The Goober (Roland Goubert), Coward with a Heart of Gold
Archie Costello, Assignment Mastermind
Obie, Disgruntled Sidekick With His Own Plans
Emile Janza, Sociopath
Brother Leon, Probably Also a Sociopath
Brother Jacques (the Head), Deus Ex Machina
Brian Cochran, Reluctant Accountant
Carter, Nominal President of The Vigils
Jerry Renault dares to disturb the universe through an act of double civil disobedience! And pays the price.
Nihilist. I think. Or Existentialist?
What was the book’s intention? did it live up to that intention?
There’s no way that The Chocolate War is not a Message Book. I hate to say it, because message books get a bad rap. But, like any category of book, there are good and bad examples. And, can I just say that most books have a message somewhere in there. But what makes a message book a Message Book is that the entire plot is dedicated to delivering a viewpoint on the world. Each cog in the well-oiled plot machine spins just to give life to a philosophical or social problem. The trick is to do this AND get a book that’s not totally didactic with cardboard characters spouting dialogue straight from afterschool specials out of it. Or some God-Narrator who tells you what you’re supposed to be figuring out for yourself.
So, what’s the message in the Chocolate War? I think the best thing about it is that it doesn’t sum up its message in one phrase (a la Jack Black at the end of King King). In fact, you have to figure it out for yourself. It’s a message book with a personal message for you. So maybe I should call it an Ethical Dilemma book. But that’s not as catchy. I see the Chocolate War as an essentially existential dilemma.
The intention of the book is to present a real life example of a real-life high school Sisyphus for the reader to mull over. Here’s a shortish summary (there are many characters, which is why this isn’t shorter): Jerry Renault goes to Trinity High. I’m assuming it’s a Jesuit school because it’s run by Brothers, but it could just be Catholic. Anyway. Jerry’s a freshman and he’s going out for the football team. The first chapter of the book kind of sums up Jerry’s character for us. Let me quote the first line: “They murdered him.” Jerry’s getting his tuchus kicked up and down the field, but he doesn’t quit. Huh. Could that be foreshadowing?
In the second chapter we learn that Trinity High has a not so secret secret society called the Vigils. Their main thing is making non-Vigils do elaborate pranks. It’s sort of hazing, I guess, because some of the kids who do the pranks eventually get into the Vigils and go on to force other kids to do pranks. Archie Costello is the Prankmaster, although he’s not the President of the Vigils, and his second in command is Obie. Obie hates Archie. Archie decides to assign Jerry a task, even though Jerry’s mom has just died. Archie doesn’t give a shit. He’s going to assign Jerry something to do with chocolates.
There’s a big chocolate sale at the school every year as a fundraiser. This year the Head of the school, Brother Jacques, is sick, so Brother Leon is in charge of the chocolates and the school. Brother Leon lives for Trinity, and he has a habit of messing with students mentally to get them to understand that their loyalty to Trinity is super-important. This year he bought double the amount of chocolates and he’s going to sell them for double the price and tell the kids that they have to bring in double the quota. Even though this is all strictly “voluntary”. And he asks Archie for the support of the Vigils. In so many words.
So, here comes Jerry. Jerry is assigned to refuse to sell chocolates for ten school days. One would think it’s not a big deal. But it causes unbelievable tension. It makes Brother Leon apoplectic. It puts pressure on the Vigils because they were supposed to support the sale in the first place. It makes other kids uncomfortable because they’re out there trying to sell the stupid chocolates and Jerry isn’t.
And then Jerry won’t stop refusing to sell chocolates. He realizes it’s absurd –or, he doesn’t realize anything at first. He just knows he’s doing it. He has to.
Here’s our dilemma! And here’s where I really connect with the book. Jerry is restless. Hippies call him a sub-human because he’s living a square life. He has a poster in his locker that quotes T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (not that Jerry knows this): Do I Dare Disturb the Universe? He does. Almost just because. Which reminds me of what Camus thinks about Sisyphus:
“Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is,as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth…. All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained [in his rock]. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing….The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
I’m not going to reveal what happens to Jerry. I’m just going to say that it’s his choice. And it’s our choice to imagine if his choice gives him any happiness, idealistic or otherwise. (Or I could read Beyond the Chocolate War and see if there are more answers there).
I’ll just say that I really identify with his stubbornness. I’ll admit that the events of the book might be a little unrealistic and I found myself questioning their plausibility, but then I would often admit that the okay of authority figures, whether heads of schools or secret societies, often sanctions the most unreasonable behavior. It can be very hard to talk to parents when you’re an adolescent. In the end I’d say that it wasn’t too hard to believe in the situation.
I’ve got a classic and and upcoming readalike for this book:
The Wave by Todd Strasser. Same old-fashioned language. Same treatment of a school-wide phenomenon. But this time… with Nazis.
The List by Siobhan Vivian. Multiple viewpoints. Divisive list. Dare I say… a message book? When it comes out in April you can decide for yourself. You can also check out our interview of Siobhan Vivian here!
Disclosures and Digressions
a. I know Siobhan Vivian and I love her lots. As a person. And a writer.
b. We had fundraisers something like the chocolate sale at my middle school, so I can identify with the feeling of being emotionally manipulated into becoming a mini-salesperson — at my school they hired people to come in and do a presentation and show you how many AWESOME prizes you could win at what SALES LEVEL. And then I’d go home and not sell anything. On the other hand, I won a prize for most Girl Scout Cookies sold one year. But that was because my dad did the selling. This isn’t so much a personal disclosure as a nearly meaningless digression.
I got my copy from: the library