Boy’s Life – Robert McCammon

Boy's LifeBoy’s Life starts off with the promise of a great novel about to unfold. I mean, just take a look at the opening passage:

“CORY? WAKE UP, SON. IT’S TIME.”

I let him pull me up from the dark cavern of sleep, and I opened my eyes and looked up at him. He was already dressed, in his dark brown uniform with his name – Tom – written in white letters across his breast pocket. I smelled bacon and eggs, and the radio was playing softly in the kitchen. A pan rattled and glasses clinked; Mom was at work in her element as surely as a trout rides a current. “It’s time,” my father said, and he switched on the lamp beside my bed and left me squinting with the last images of a dream fading in my brain.”

The imagery in this book is simply stunning in its density and inventiveness. Rarely does a novel manage to engage the senses as fully and to keep them a-tingling to its end. This ones bombards them with colors, smells, sounds, aches and pleasantness. But there’s more to it. McCammon is a true master of the simile and the metaphor. Here is some evidence:

“September dwindled away, and one morning it was October. The hills were streaked with red and gold, as if some magician had painted the trees almost overnight. It was still hot in the afternoons, but the mornings began to whisper about sweaters. This was Indian summer, when you saw those purple-and-red-grained ears of corn in baskets in the grocery store and an occasional dead leaf chuckled along the sidewalk.”

The mornings began to whisper about sweaters! Man, who wouldn’t wish to be able to write like that!

The story itself, in its beginning, sets the expectations just as high. Cory is a twelve-year-old boy in Zephyr, Alabama. It’s the sixties and this particular corner of the Earth seems to be under the protection of a magical spell against all the miseries of the world and the implacable passage of time. Until a man is murdered and plunged in the bottomless lake near Zephyr, a journey into oblivion that Cory witnesses on one chilly morning while helping his dad do the usual milk run. Who among Zephyr’s peaceful folk is capable of such a thing? Who is this stranger living among them?

It’s a great premise, a great start. The book is but a sliver short of brilliant on many occasions. Sadly, on many more it lacks crucial ingredients. One could easily argue that this design was deliberate; the author addresses the issue several times, explicitly even. Here is what he has to say in the prologue:

“There might be some places where you’ll say, “Hey, how come he knows this event right here happened or this person said or did this or that if he wasn’t even there?” The answer to that question is that I found out enough later on to fill in the blanks, or in some cases I made up what happened, or in other cases I figured it ought to have happened that way even if it didn’t.”

This is not McCammon the author speaking, but Cory the-grown-up, who has turned into a fine young, verging on middle-aged, storyteller. A remarkable sort of candidness, that is, but what he has tried to pull off is devastatingly hard. You don’t ride a bicycle, imagining that you are steering a raft. In the same way, you don’t write a novel disregarding the centuries of know-how for doing precisely that. The novel, as a form of fiction, is an artifact. You can even say it is a technology. It took time to arrive at it, lot’s of time, and it was strongly shaped (still is) by universal and cultural influences. And though admittedly very flexible (the fact that the novel still is the predominant literary form is the ultimate testament to that), it is not limitless. Those limits can be tested, redefined even, but some things just don’t work.

It’s not merely that the narrator here is semi-omniscient. Other novels have this kind of narrators and they work fine. This one’s chief fault lies in its refusal to dramatize the story. We know from the very start that the narrator is either an older version of the protagonist or just a guy with a typewriter who made all that up. This guy has everything figured out and the reader gets that vibe easily. Stuff that Cory couldn’t have known at the time is revealed right away. The suspense of pretended ignorance is simply missing. Moreover, the narrator frequently gives his (tangibly grown-up) opinions about the events in the story. Instead of showing us the lines of tension, stressing the multiple viewpoints (and that too could be done with just one POV-character), the opposing attitudes and forces at play… instead of giving us drama, he tells us about stuff. And what he tells us about is not at all badly told or boring. But it never comes fully together as a novel.

It is about childhood and the ghost of the past, about lost magic and days of infinite possibilities, before life narrowed them down to a reality. Melancholia is the chief mood, even though the excellent writing and the author’s knack for imagism and mythopoeia surely make for a very nuanced read. The human nuances, however, are too sparse. Real novels breathe human drama and that’s that. Boy’s Life never takes off in a novelistic sense, it feels more like a bead of stories that are quite tightly strung together, but would very much like to maintain a degree of independence. Maybe that is what the author genuinely wanted to do, I wouldn’t be surprised.

This kind of structure can work, I suppose, within shorter page counts. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, which feels like a close relative to Boy’s Life (not surprisingly, The Golden Apples of the Sun by the grand master is among Cory’s favorites), is a prime example. McCammon’s book though, is perhaps three times longer. The novel as a form is bred to run long distances without losing its grip on the reader’s imagination. It is what it is for very good reasons, and Boy’s Life is a poor example of this breed.

I know many people love the book. It must mean that McCammon succeeded in what he set out to do, at least partially. I too enjoyed it a whole lot. And yet I can’t help thinking how it would read, had he chosen to tell his story differently. Not tell a different story, but shape it in another way. The world of Zephyr holds such rich material that could be tied together in this never-written novel. There is the microcosm of school, with its fair share of bullies, dystopian teachers and, well, girls (sadly absent from the narrative for most of the time). Cory’s friends all seem like interesting enough guys, their families surely have their own dramas. There is racial hatred and economic turmoil in this little Southern town. Voodoo, ancient river monsters, manic ministers and beasts of the forgotten world. It’s a book so full of great stuff, but in the end it all comes in a sort of a jumble to the reader. It could have been focused much more powerfully. Here’s one thing that could have served as such a focus:

“As I looked at the photographs of President Kennedy’s funeral – the riderless horse, the dead man’s little boy saluting, rows of people standing to watch the coffin go past ­– I realized what to me was a peculiar and scary thing. In those pictures, you can see black pools spreading. Maybe it was just light, or the film, or something, but those pictures seemed to me to be filling up with darkness. Black shadows hang in the corners; they spread tendrils across men in suits and weeping women, and they connect cars and buildings and manicured lawns with long fingers of shadow. Faces are shrouded with darkness, and it has gathered around people’s shoes like ponds of tar. The darkness seems like a living thing in those pictures, something growing among the people like a virus and hungrily stretching right off the frame.”

That could have been something timeless. A blend of magic and reality that would have been lit up like a Christmas tree by McCammon’s piercing metaphors and uncanny ability to capture the sense of a place. Think along the lines of HBO’s Carnivale, but steeped in childhood. Oh well, it might be just me.

Instead, Boy’s Life is a bit too opinionated, a bit too serene. I had the constant feeling that the stakes weren’t high enough. The author has implanted a response to this critique as well:

“Four years. The boy stood it for four years. And he wrote this book about the town, and the people in it who made it what it was. And maybe there wasn’t a real plot to it, maybe there wasn’t anything that grabbed you by the throat and tried to shake you until your bones rattled, but the book was about life. It was the flow and the voices, the little day-to-day things that make up the memory of living. It meandered like a river, and you never knew where you were going until you got there, but the journey was sweet and deep and left you wishing for more.”

What can I say. It mostly works and, indeed, leaves you wishing for more, although perhaps in a slightly different sense. Which is an emotion I tend to associate more strongly with my grown-up(ish) life, not with my childhood years. When I loved something back then, I loved it without second thoughts and it was a reality unto its own. Novels are still the best way I’ve found to approximate that unconditional magic and, however much I love experimentation, I don’t think the author made the best choices with this one. It is his book though, and it is a good one, despite everything I’ve written. It just didn’t flow that smoothly for me. Or maybe it flowed much too smoothly.

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