Robert R. McCammon won the World Fantasy Award for best novel back in 1992 for this book, about a boy who witnesses a horror and begins retelling the events that unfold in the year that follows. Although written from the perspective of a twelve-year-old, it plays as a more mature version of King’s It or Simmons’s Summer of Night. Despite strong elements of horror (McCammon began his career as a horror writer) this feels more like magic realism.
Corey is twelve. Summer approaches.
Title: Boy’s Life
Author: Robert R. McCammon
First published: August 1991.
Twelve-year-old Cory Mackenson and his milkman father witness a scene of horror in the spring of 1964. The mystery unravels, the times change, and Cory matures, but we see this from a rather interesting perspective. Cory, an aspiring author, enjoys writing or, as he says, “righting” the tale, telling events both as he recalls them and as he would like them to have occurred.
Sometimes we get entirely plausible horror, as in “The Invader” (See High Points). Other times, we’re getting events amplified by childhood imagination, as in the fun chapter, “Last Day of School.” He even uses the “all a dream” twist once, in a fairly gratuitous, but inoffensive chapter. Other events remain uncertain, such as the reality behind Ol’ Moses and the creature from the Lost World. We’re left to ponder whether we’re reading magic realism, childlike exaggeration, or outright shenanigans.
More often than not, McCammon balances the conflicting tones, so we get both a psychologically plausible depiction of a real small town childhood in a particular place and time, but also, elements of magic and horror.
His most impressive bit of storytelling occurs in Chapter Three, “The Invader,” which moves from horror movie to a horrific real-life event, and we’re left with the feeling that Cory’s writing has “righted” nothing this time.
The book balances its horrors with boyish adventures and a strong nostalgic sense. Sometimes, it overbalances and falls into sentimentality. The gratuitous death of someone close to the narrator seems forced (and unnecessary, given the other tragedies and big events) and gets used to make some rather hokey observations—and then the character gets but lightly remembered. The sentimental epilogue should have been trimmed by at least a third.
Originality: 4/6 I’ve already compared this book to others (and comparisons to Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine are inevitable), and we’ve certainly all encountered mysteries that reveal the dark underside of the apparently happy community. However, McCammon’s take frequently feels fresh. He even brings a little bit of originality to the death of the childhood pet.
Imagery: 6/6 The novel features some evocative description of wonders both natural and supernatural. I especially enjoyed the boys’ encounter with the beast from the lost world, at a carnival sideshow.
Story: 4/6 I enjoyed this book, but its plot meanders like Cory and his friends on their bicycles, and a few times ends up in territory it could have missed without harming the narrative.
Characterization: 5/6 I believed entirely in the central character. Since we were getting his view of the world, I was willing to accept the shorthand used to characterize some of the others in town.
Emotional Response: 4/6 The best points are excellent, and a sense of the overall mystery pushes the narrative through less successful chapters.
Overall score: 5/6
In total, Boy’s Life receives 32/42