TIME WAS, not so very long ago, when books for adolescent readers centered on such things as a pair of plucky youths and their adventures on an island. Islands were neat. For one thing, there were rarely parents on them, and if the plot dictated that our protagonists were to arrive there via shipwreck, the wrecked ship in question fairly bulged with keen survival gear. When there were villains, they inevitably possessed hearts as black as coal, and they were, even when not very bright, the most interesting people around.
I graduated to Horatio Hornblower and Sherlock Holmes, spent some time with Conrad and Gide, and now seem to have come full circle with Rex Stout. My kids seemed to leap straight from their drapers into the realm of hobbits, Narnia and Conan the Barbarian. Nothing in my experience, therefore, prepared me for the jolt I received on reading Robert Cormier's After the First Death. It appears that things have changed in a certain quadrant of juvenile fiction. The trouble, is, they haven't changed enough.
The plot, which is a little flooring for a while, revolves around the hijacking of a school bus full of tots by a band of ruthless foreign terrorists, the mental agonies of the girl driver, and the emotional trauma experienced by the naive boy who functions as a pawn during the rescue. Now, there is no denying that Cormier writes fluently and well; although the took does contain one very large, cheap trick, its suspense and anguish are genuine and sustained, and it is a an altogether serious undertaking. We are dealing, it would seem, with the real world.
That having been said, a few quibbles are in order. While I am the last person in the world to advocate parental censorship (anyway, it doesn't work) and I am perfectly aware of all the worthy argument that stress the need for relevance in juvenile fiction, I nevertheless find myself wondering first, why anybody would buy such a book for either his kid or himself, and second, whether the kid would read it if he did. Cormier's craft is considerable - so considerable, in fact, that it takes a brief, unsettling while to realize that we're actually back on that island with those same plucky youths, except that the island is now a bus and one of the youths is helpless and the other is neurotic. The terrorists are drawn with some care, and it takes a similar while to grasp that they, too haven't really changed. However, despite their contemporary rhetoric and Cormier's attempts at humanizing interior monologues, murdering infants is all they can think of to do when the chips are down. Meanwhile, the behavior of the general commanding the rescue, who also happens to be the father of the neurotic boy, is bizarre to the point of brain damage. (This is understandable, for his one of the villains too).
As for the book's attracting a teen readership, therefore, I think not; The Hardy Boys Meet the Red Brigades and Get Killed and Go Nuts is hardly anybody's cup of tea. Doubtless a few teenagers will read it, and a few of them may actually finish it, but Cormier is aiming at all audience that exhibits an almost biological craving for fantasy and role models, and he provides neither. This is not to imply, by the way, that fantasy and role models are hostile to the purposes of literature or that the same book cannot serve both youth and age; D. H. Lawrence was perfectly correct when he remarked that most of the great classics of American literature can be found on the children's bookshelf. Cormier's problem is that he has linked a commendable seriousness of purpose and a gripping and workable plot with an antique shallowness of execution. It is a mixture that can only make the adults uneasy and put the kids to sleep.