Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon

Having read McCammon’s outstanding short story collection Blue World about a decade ago, and having heard consistently good reports about Boy’s Life, this has been a novel I’ve wanted to read for many years. It’s disappointing, therefore, that I have to report that it doesn’t quite live up to the hype.

Things get off to a good start. We are introduced to life in a 1960s small town called Zephyr, told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy called Cory. Whilst helping his dad do the milk rounds in the early hours of one morning, the pair are witness to a car driving into a lake. Cory’s dad attempts to rescue the driver before the car sinks, only to discover the man unconscious, beaten to a pulp, handcuffed to the steering wheel with a length of piano wire around his neck. So begins the mystery of who this mysterious man is and who murdered him.

The disappointment for me began when I realised McCammon intended to keep this plotline well and truly in the background, rathen than using it as the driving force behind the novel. The duration of the book takes place over one year of the boy’s life, split into four roughly equal seasons. Each individual chapter has its own theme, and these themes are so varied that at times it almost feels like reading a short story collection. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but among these chapters you’ll encounter a sea monster, some ghosts, a bicycle that has a life of its own, a zombie dog, a dinosaur and a sprinkling of voodoo magic; for the a single novel, I can’t help thinking things are getting a little overcrowded.

The real theme of this novel is recapturing one’s childhood. This is a theme I have some appreciation for, but McCammon gets down to some in-your-face philosophising that I didn’t find particularly true. He puts on his rose tinted glasses about the past, and insists we adults are all dissatisfied with our lives and wishing we could just be children again. He forgets about the selfishness, ignorance, cruelty, name-calling and insecurity of childhood, insisting that the world is full of magic if only we could see it again. Things get blown out of all proprortion when Cory sees an eyeball in the headlamp of his new bicycle, and the bike often steers him out of trouble. I guess bikes without headlamps must be blind, eh?

OK, I’ve been very critical, but let me state for the record that I liked the people in this story. I got to know them fairly well, and I often enjoyed myself when McCammon took me off to one side on a mini adventure. These adventures ranged from the excellent to the below average. So, it’s with regret that I give this novel three out of five stars.

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