This book blew me away when I first read it in the late 1970s. I was a pre-teen then, and I'd never been to America, so the whole American context of the book was strange to me. I still don't know if Catholic schools on the East Coast are actually like this... maybe I'm better off not knowing.
The first sentence, “They murdered him,” is meant figuratively in the context of the opening scene, an American football try-out, but is simultaneously a close-to-literal plot synopsis. How often do three words do that much work?
Nor does the book slow down much after that. I think it disturbed me more deeply than William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which I must have first read around the same time. According to his “Guardian” obituary, Cormier was surprised when his agent told him The Chocolate War was a book for teenagers, but the agent had a point – adults are probably too impressionable to be allowed access to this sort of thing.
First published in the year Nixon resigned – although a few hippie street people are the only explicitly topical reference -- The Chocolate War is about the competitive pressure to meet sales targets, with corruption extending all the way to the top. The dodgy accounting, the unbuckable system -- it's the America we think we know, immaculately mythologized. Amazingly, The Chocolate War topped the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom's list of most challenged books as recently as 2004, which perhaps shows how few things changed between 1974 and 2004. The purpose of rules is to crush those who ignore them, and consumerism is a duty worth killing for – this book is a bleak portrayal of the fate of a conscientious objector under corporate Fascism.
Part of what parents object to may be the pervasive atmosphere of unsatisfied teenage lust. There are no woman characters -- women are unattainable objects throughout. Characters include Brother Leon, one of the creepiest teachers in fiction, Archie Costello, a delightful villain and a master at manufacturing consent, and the hero Jerry Renault, who I've taken three decades to recognize as myself. According to an interview with ipl2, The Chocolate War was inspired by Cormier's son's decision not to sell the chocolates during his school's annual sale, and Cormier's true heroes included Graham Greene and J.D. Salinger.
This is rather a klunky segue, but I just heard that Salinger died today (January 28th 2010)...