Because of its intentionally ambiguous characters and structure, it is not easy to construct a clear analysis of this novel. A detailed attempt to solve its mystery completely may lead to even more questions and confusion. Even Cormier’s responses to readers do not fully clarify matters.
What the reader does “know” is that Adam Farmer believes that he is riding his bicycle to Rutterburg, Vermont, to rescue his father; that he has learned about a past life of which he has been unaware; and that he is involved with some institution interested in learning more about his memory.
Given the ambiguity of the plot, the book’s mysterious characters demand careful attention-particularly Adam, who the reader later learns is really Paul Delmonte. Assuming that Adam/Paul is both the bicycle rider and the boy under interrogation or therapy, it is reasonable to deduce that he suffers from emotional problems or even mental illness. At some points he seems innocent and vulnerable, at others, mistrustful and defiant. Regardless, his actions indicate that he is pitted against a system of shadowy individuals or organizations, possibly the government or organized crime. It is less clear, however, whether Adam is a pawn in some game or if he is knowingly out on his own trying to outwit his adversaries and rescue his father from some sinister situation.
In a way, Adam’s exploits with Amy Hertz, called “Numbers,” prove his capacity to work within a conspiracy. But these childish pranks hardly compare to the ominous world of the strange Mr. Grey and the even more puzzling Brint. Readers familiar with Cormier’s fiction will recognize the basic situation: an individual up against a seemingly all-powerful force. Moreover, whether Brint and Grey represent the same or opposing social forces, their dedication to their own institutional survival makes them willing to psychologically and physically destroy the individual who challenges them.
Adam faces a sinister world, a murky realm of faceless agents, terrifying dogs, homosexual overtures, and frightening authorities. He lives a nightmare, and this is very much the theme of the novel. Like Cormier’s other protagonists, Adam pedals through a landscape of paranoia, betrayal, guilt, fear, and psychosis, a world where human and institutional evil imprisons, tears apart, or destroys the innocent.
Adam, then, is “the cheese” of the nursery rhyme “The Farmer in the Dell.” He “stands alone” in a society permeated by assassination, conspiracy, and individuals of uncertain loyalties. Evil prevails and the innocent citizen must guard against even those who express a desire to help.
Adam’s father is or was part of the Witness Relocation Program, a government plan that supplies important witnesses against crime with new identities and sets them up in new lives. Adam’s struggle to learn his and his family’s true identity is the heart of the story. His discovery incorporates another facet of Cormier’s vision of reality: Adam, like all Americans, is identified as a series of digits in a bureaucratic computer. The inhumanity of institutions is quite apparent here, and Cormier points out that the innocent are used by those very individuals-such as parents, leaders, and scientists-whom they should trust.
Adam’s reactions to events reveal the extent to which his own behavior is corrupted. He becomes a spy himself, mistrustful of his family, alienated from his parents, and out of touch with reality. On a more personal level, the author suggests that the most poignant aspect of Adam’s situation is that fear has replaced love in the family bond and that the destruction of the Farmers/Delmontes far exceeds the physical loss. Lacking the support of his family, Adam uses his imaginary world to resist his enemies’ inroads. One critic has suggested that he is, if anything, a Swiss cheese in the sense that his experience has left him full of psychological “holes” and retreat is his only means of survival.
Cormier offers a dark vision of modern America, implying that while the Farmers suffer an unusual plight, these malevolent forces are very much a dangerous part of contemporary life.