Sand Mountain Reporter, March 18, 2008
No better read than this 'Boy's Life'
By Lionel Green
The Sand Mountain Reporter
Published March 18, 2008
I have to risk boring you to tears with a book review. It's the only one I ever do annually, because it's easily the single, greatest American novel I have ever read.
"It was mid-March, and a chill wind blew through the trees beyond my window," the book begins.
So whenever mid-March rolls around, I submit a review of this book. It's usually about the same one as the year before. I feel a strong obligation to humanity to recommend it.
By the way, the author, Robert R. McCammon, is a Birmingham native, and the novel is set in south Alabama.
The book is called Boy's Life and it begins in the middle of March 1964. It is a personal and powerful tale about a 12-year-old boy named Cory, who is experiencing the finale of his youthful innocence.
You know the time. When a boy's bicycle and his dog mean more to him than life itself. When camping out in the woods is filled with unknown dangers. Monsters live in the river, and a ghostly apparition haunts a lonely road at night.
Baseball is still pure, love aches and invaders from Mars are a real threat to the world.
Boy's Life begins when Cory and his father witness a car drive off into a deep lake. Cory's dad dives in to try and save the driver, but instead sees the horrific corpse of a murdered man.
Cory glimpses a mysterious figure in the woods across the road. No one sees the figure but him, and his discovery of a green feather where the figure stood sparks his determination to solve the mystery.
What happens between the discovery of the feather and the stunning conclusion are the adventures and events that will shape Cory's life. Some of the highlights include subplots involving a legendary Loch Ness-type monster rumored to lurk in the river, a seedy carnival with an unlikely creature from a distant time, and a camping trip where innocent boys encounter guilty men.
McCammon beautifully weaves these and a number of other subplots into his story. It's poetic storytelling. It's what would happen if Mark Twain had written the screenplay for that eloquent coming-of-age film, Stand By Me.
McCammon describes Cory's feelings with dead-on accuracy. For example, when Cory meets Chile Willow, a 16-year-old girl from the wrong side of the tracks, the boy falls in love for the first time. Cory's encounter with Chile is brief but memorable, and ends in an unexpected way. But the feelings of the young boy are as powerful as any he had felt up to that point.
"My heart was speaking to Chile Willow, Cory thought. My heart was saying, 'If you were my girlfriend, I would give you a hundred lightning bugs in a green glass jar, so you could always see your way ... If you would only like me.'"
Cory never reveals his feelings to the girl, but the reason why is surprising. Those little surprises pop up throughout Boy's Life. Of course, there are the town bullies to deal with, as well as a gut-wrenching lesson about life and death involving Cory's dog.
Other seminal moments are described in the young boy's life, like his discovery of the Beach Boys and his success in a writing contest. It all fits and feels necessary. McCammon makes these moments in Cory's life matter as only the best writers can.
Cory's adventures culminate in a thrillingly suspenseful climax. McCammon creates a mystery so complex yet so well-told that you may not even realize you're reading a mystery until the end.
Ultimately, the book is about the loss of innocence, not only for Cory, but for his hometown and his father.
McCammon equates youthful innocence with magic.
"The truth of life is that every year we get farther away from the essence that is born within us," McCammon writes. "We get shouldered with burdens. Things happen to us. People lose their way, for one reason or another. Life itself does its best to take that memory of magic away from us. You don't know it's happening until one day you feel you've lost something but you're not sure what it is.
"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."
Lionel Green is a staff writer for The Sand Mountain Reporter. His e-mail address is county(at)sandmountainreporter.com. Albertville, AL
Copyright © 2008 The Sand Mountain Reporter. Reprinted with permission.