The Bookworm: The Cheater
The Cheater, by R.L. Stine. 152 pages. Pocket Books. April 1993.
“The way I see it,” he said, moving in close to her, his lips almost brushing her ear. “I’ve got something you want—and you’ve got something I want.” (p. 9)
The latest installment of my Fear Street re-reads represents the last non-trilogy book in my original collection: The Cheater. (As I noted previously, the one remaining book in my original collection is the second book of a trilogy, so I will read that after I have read its predecessor.)
What naturally comes to mind when reading the title and studying The Cheater’s cover? One, I assume, would think The Cheater tells the story of a young woman who cheats on her boyfriend, or whose boyfriend cheats on her. Instead, the book is about Carter Phillips cheating on a math test.
Well, technically Carter does not cheat on the test. Needing to score 700 or better on an ACT-like math test to get into Princeton and appease her farther, Carter asks Adam Messner take the test for her. All he asks for in return is one date. Even though she is already dating Dan, Carter does not see any harm in just one date. She agrees, Adam takes the test, and they go out. Carter assumes that’s the end of it, but Adam has other plans. After inviting himself to Carter’s country club for a tennis match, Adam says he will pick her up again. “[I]f I were you, Carter, I’d want to keep me happy. Know what I mean? (p. 32).”
Carter is then sucked into a vortex of blackmail. She breaks dates with her boyfriend to appease Adam, and even convinces her friend to tag along on what becomes a disastrous double date. Adam then begins asking for money. If she does not do what Adam says, Carter knows he will tell her father, a respected judge in Shadyside, that he took the test for her. She reluctantly pawns much of her jewelry, including expensive diamond earrings her father gives her when they learn she (Adam) scored 730 on the test. In order to cover her tracks and maintain her secret, she lies to her boyfriend, best friend, and her parents, digging herself deeper and deeper with every fib. Eventually, Adam’s demands become too much and Carter begins to think the only way out is to kill him.
Carter’s boyfriend, Dan, who is described as rational, honest, and straight, figures out Adam took the test for Carter and is now blackmailing her. Carter confesses and Dan is furious. He wants her to stop giving Adam money. But Carter decides to give one last payment to Adam. After visiting Adam’s house and supposedly giving him the money (Stine conveniently skips over that scene), the police inform Carter and Dan that Adam was murdered.
Who did it? I won’t say, but, after the murderer confesses, Judge Phillips weighs in to say, “I think we can make a pretty good case that Adam’s death with accidental, or at least that ___ acted in self-defense.” The judge, of course, also finds Adam’s killer a good lawyer. At the end, The Cheater offers the impression that Carter’s problems have been or will be resolved and her life will return to normal.
Oh, how convenient for her. Also convenient is the fact Adam is dead and nobody really cares at the end. Sure, I suppose he was a dick since he broke the original agreement and then blackmailed Carter. But he—a working class tough kid with brains—took a test for her—a rich girl unable to get into Princeton on her own—and ended up getting killed. Carter worried a lot about having ruined her life, but she ends up ending Adam’s. (Adam, of course, did not have to take the test. Or try to blackmail her.) When considered though that lens, The Cheater imparts a cynical socioeconomic worldview: the rich do what they want to get what they want and make the poor suffer the repercussions.
Conveniences aside (including the fact nobody at the test site checked IDs), I felt The Cheater realistically dealt with a serious issue for teenagers. Though very few go to the extreme Carter did, many teens are burdened by the pressures of doing well on assessment tests, making parents or guardians proud, and getting into the college of their dreams. The pressure Carter perceived was palpable, as were the guilt that weighed down on her and her fear of getting caught. I could empathize; the sickening dread I felt when I had something bad to tell my parents came bubbling to the surface at certain points in the book. In that sense, it is a book that many people can identify with.