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Monday, March 28, 2022

Book review: Boy's Life by Robert McCammon


Book links: AmazonGoodreads

AUTHOR INFO: Robert Rick McCammon was a full-time horror writer for many years. Among his many popular novels were the classics Boy's Life and Swan Song. After taking a hiatus for his family, he returned to writing with an interest in historical fiction.

McCammon resides in Birmingham, Alabama. He is currently working on the eighth Matthew Corbett novel, The King of Shadows.

First published: 1991 Length: 624 pages Awards: Winner of the 1991 Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a Novel, and 1992 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.


"We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God's sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they'd allowed to wither in themselves."
This quote contains the essence of McCammon's Boy's Life. If it speaks to you, you will love the book. You'll love it if you are a dreamer or simply miss the innocence of childhood, carefree adventure, and the magic of everyday discovery. It's about everlasting summer days, hidden places, and the magic that's in all of us.

It's also about a murder mystery, except that the murder is not central to the plot, not in an obvious way. Vignettes revolving around the protagonist's everyday life, his friends, and family dominate the story's non-linear structure.

Boy's Life takes place in the quiet town of Zephyr, somewhere in Alabama, in the 1960s. From the outside, the town looks idyllic, but dig deeper and cracks start to show. The most obvious? Segregation, a good reminder that the "good ole days" weren't good for everyone. But there's also a hidden evil in the city, and it takes more than one form.

Twelve-year-old Cory Mackenson and his father, Tom, witness a car plunge into Lake Saxon. Tom dives to the rescue but finds only a naked and strangled corpse handcuffed to the steering wheel of the sinking car. Cory sees a menacing figure watching from the edge of the woods, but discovers only a green feather at the site. The mystery of the murder gets in and out of focus throughout the novel. It's central to Cory's coming-of-age arc, but ultimately it's the novel about the coming- of age involving murder mystery and not the other way around.

Cory has bigger things to worry about. Immediate threats include a pair of school bullies, embittered teachers, or boredom. Things that turn his life upside down are small in scale, like when his beloved bike breaks down and is accidentally taken to the junkyard. Or witnessing his father blaming himself for not saving the man from the sinking car. But there are also moments of pure delight! When Cory gets a new bike from the Lady (who may or may not be an accomplished voodoo practitioner) and names it "Rocket," you can't help but feel his excitement as he races through the streets. Also, the bike seems to have a mind of its own, a glowing eye, and a soft spot for Cory and his well-being. 

Both main and secondary characters are wonderful and memorable. All have their distinct traits. Take Vernon Thaxter - the eccentric son of the richest man in town. Vernon wanted to be a writer despite his father's disapproval and even published a book once. Sadly, he listened to the publishers and changed his book to fit the market. The book didn't sell and Vernon had a mental breakdown that brought him back to Zephyr, where he can often be seen walking through town naked. There's also Nemo Curliss - a young boy who comes to live in Zephyr for a few short months during the summer of 1964. Nemo is preternaturally skilled at baseball but his overprotective mother refuses to allow him to play. She thinks him too fragile. And there are more of them, each with memorable oddities.

McCammon nailed the nostalgic tone here, creating dozens and dozens of quotable lines. He has also wrapped up the murder mystery with style and ingenuity (always listen to the parrot). Some readers may be bothered by the non-linear structure and lack of focus on the murder case. Others will love slice-of-life vignettes from Cory's life. I am definitely in the second group.

Boy's Life is a wonderful and genuinely magical coming-of-age story. Highly, highly recommended.



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