Book Review : Robert McCammon - Boy's Life (1991)
* a suggestion from Bob Pastorella himself *
Robert McCammon is somewhat of an urban legend for the internet age. He once was a New York Times Best-Selling author who decided to walk away from publishing for ten years before making a quiet comeback last decade to pursue a passion project. People compared him advantageously to Stephen King then, which fueled his legend and, I'm sure, didn't help his complicated relationship to writing. So, Robert McCammon's iconic novel Boy's Life landed on my desk by chance this month, giving me the opportunity to make myself an opinion on this underground legend. Is McCammon better than King? Is he a opportunistic knockoff? Do both writer even have anything to do with one another?
I am here to answer your questions.
Boy's Life is narrated by Cory Mackenson, a forty years-old author fondly recalling his childhood in a violent, racist shithole called Zephyr, Alabama. McCammon himself is from Birmingham, so there are probably some personal memories intertwined with it. That's an important distinction because Boy's Life isn't narrated by a twelve year-old, but by a forty year old reminiscing on his formative years. I would be at loss to explain what the plot of this novel is for reasons I'll go into later, but it begins with Cory and his father, Zephyr's milkman Tom Mackenson, witnessing a car driving into the lake while on a morning milk run. Tom attempts to save the driver's life only to find out he's been savagely beaten and handcuffed to the steering wheel. Now, I know what you're thinking : the murder throws the town upside down and Cory begins investigating. Uh...not really.
The overarching plot of Boy's Life is the murder story, but it comes and goes throughout the novel. The novel is not an investigation like conventional mysteries are. What makes Boy's Life fun is that it's completely unpredictable. Cory Mackenson is not trying to exorcise a demon of his past by writing about it, but rather tell you about that magic place where he grew up. It comes across as obnoxious at times because everybody else in the novel seems tormented or at least suffering up to a certain degree: his father is visibly suffering from PTSD, his friend Ben's family is torn by his father alcoholism, the KKK is trying to chase a hundred years old lady out of town, there is a violence, a flood, etc. Boy's Life would've been obnoxious and unpleasant through and through if Robert McCammon was trying to manipulate you. But he's not. It's a blissfully earnest and disorienting novel and you never quite gain a sense of where this is going. It's like walking into a new city with a guide who really loves his job.
The primary theme of Boy's Life is death and it shows itself many, many time for what is technically a coming-of-age novel: the murder victim at the beginning, Cory's dog Rebel, there's one of Cory's friends who also passes, etc. I'm not spoiling anything here, by the way. It has zero bearing on the plot. While it was by far the most interesting aspect of Boy's Life, I had somewhat of a love/hate relationship how Robert McCammon decided to portray it. It was the only aspect of the novel I thought was manipulative in the sense that some of these deaths were just unnecessary. They were just extra pathos stapled on a package that didn't require it and while I appreciate what he was trying to do, it just doesn't work. It's easily eighty pages that could've been shaved off the novel.
It didn't serve any purpose aside from ushering Cory into adulthood and this entire novel is about a year in his life that ushered him into adulthood. I agree that coming to terms with death is a formative moment in someone's life, but narratively speaking it's a quality-over-quantity theme. The only relationship to death that didn't seem superficial in Boy's Life is Tom's relationship to the murder victim. I would've loved a deeper portrait of his suffering and how the death of a stranger affected his family. Cory and Tom basically witnessed a murder and it's an afterthought to the story. It keeps dropping from the face of the Earth every fifty pages or so. So, that was frustrating. Especially that it took the backseat to unnecessary coming-of-age moments that featured bland, unnecessary deaths.
So, I read Boy's Life with the comparisons between Robert McCammon and Stephen King and I could not see it. McCammon is by far the stronger stylist of the two and he's not a bad storyteller at all either, even if Boy's Life is complicated and confusing at times. I could not stop myself reading because of just how goddamn charming McCammon's writing was. So, the comparison between him and King are a little bit of an apples vs oranges thing. They both write intricate novels that often feature supernatural elements, but they're not redundant. Their imaginaries are distinct. At least, as far as Boy's Life is concerned. I liked the book. I wanted to like it more, but thought the book loved itself quite a lot too, so that kind of got in the way. I can't deny the expert craftsmanship, though. Robert McCammon is a magnificent writers and deserves your attention.