Boy's Life by Robert R. McCammon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the eleventh of twelve books I pledged to read in 2013, because it had been on my shelf for far too long. I have no reason for putting this book off as long as I did, except that it just wasn't a priority. Once again, I find myself grateful for the excuse to have bumped it up in my to-read queue.
The story is told by Cory Mackenson, an adult looking back on his twelfth year growing up in Zephyr, Alabama. He muses about the magic of childhood, which, in this book, isn't entirely metaphorical. The happenings of that summer can only be fully explained by the existence of supernatural phenomena.
The seed of the story is a murder mystery. Cory and his father are delivering milk one cool spring morning when they see a car go off a cliff into the town's deep, dark lake. Cory's father jumps in to rescue the driver, but finds the stranger is already dead, and handcuffed to the wheel. The memory of it comes to haunt Tom Mackenson.
But the story, really, is about the fictional town of Zephyr, its residents, and the changes sweeping through it. Some are good changes: the local source of most crime is stopped, and a museum dedicated to the history of slavery opens in the town, while racism is confronted and reduced. Some are neutral: the supermarket that opens is convenient for Zephyr's residents, though it also makes Cory's father's job obsolete, and the Mackenson family struggles with finances. Some are bad: the town discovers it's been harboring a murderer, a flood damages much of the poor (and, not coincidentally, black) part of town, and local members of the KKK make their presence known.
Cory starts out his year believing in magic. He collects tokens for their magical value, and wholeheartedly believes in the mystical power of The Lady, a black woman with some spiritual influence in town. He describes his first day of summer with his friends as their wings bursting forth, and relates an impossible story of soaring through the sky. He also encounters a prehistoric beast who occupies the river, and receives heaps of scorn when he tells his more cynical friends how he thwarted it.
The magical elements are there throughout, but Cory believes in them less and less as the story goes on. Toward the end of the book, he's justifying, hedging, and explaining why something might appear to be magic, but it isn't. He never disbelieves entirely, but it's easy to see it's wearing off as young Cory is forced to grow up.
Within the book, there's a reference to another murder mystery, written by the local eccentric, Vernon Thaxter. Cory's mother has read it, and remarks that the mystery seems tacked on. Cory later finds out that the mystery was tacked on. Vernon was pressured by his editor to make the story exciting, when all he wanted to do was pay homage to his lovely hometown. It's both a parallel and a contrast to Boy's Life, itself. The magic and mystery are blended nicely into the small-town anecdotes in this book. It also works on a meta level to explain why Robert R. McCammon chose this setting for his story.
The book contains several Bradbury-esque elements, too. The fall carnival seems a direct homage to Something Wicked This Way Comes, and the tone of Boy's Life is often similar to Dandelion Wine. There's also the quiet menace of some of Bradbury's creepier short stories. McCammon makes it clear that this, too, is no accident, when Cory gets a short story collection by Bradbury as a gift. McCammon lists several more inspirations at the back of the book, but Bradbury seemed the strongest one, to me.
Though Zephyr is a fun and fascinating place to visit, though, sometimes the chapters seemed too anecdotal. There were times when it seemed more like a series of short stories set in the fictional Alabama small town than a coherent narrative. The last few chapters dispel that notion, but it did make it difficult to read more than a chapter or two at a time. I had an easy time setting it aside.
When I picked up Boy's Life, I had fretted that other readers' enjoyment of this book stemmed from the nostalgia factor. While a love of the time period may well enhance one's enjoyment of this book, it stands well on its own merit. Provided you like stories that unfold slowly and subtly, I recommend you give this one a try. Of the McCammon books I've read so far, it's the least scary.
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