By Robert R. McCammon
Robert R. McCammon, horror writer extraordinaire, turned from writing stories that scare to stories that enchant. Much like Ray Bradbury did in Dandelion Wine, McCammon strings together a string of stories and anecdotes from the life of a fictional boy named Cory Mackenson, a 12 year old boy growing up in rural Alabama in the 1960s.
Oh yeah, there’s a murder mystery in the book as well.
Cory Mackenson lives in Zephyr, Alabama and his life is seemingly idyllic. He has a small group of close friends with whom he revels in the joys of boyhood. He has loving, supportive parents. He has a loyal dog at his side. Summer draws close and the promise of freedom from school and its demands beckon.
One morning, Cory accompanies his father on his milk delivery route. As they drive out a rural road, a car comes careening out of nowhere and nearly collides with their milk truck. The car veers off the road and plunges into a quarry.
Cory’s dad jumps into the water and tries to save the driver. Unfortunately, he’s already dead. He’s been beaten badly about the head and has a garrote around his throat. His dad is eventually forced to abandon his rescue efforts when the car plunges into the depths of the quarry, never to be recovered.
While Cory looks on in trepidation, he notices a figure standing nearby, clad in a dark coat, face obscured. The figure watches the car sink and slinks out into the woods. Cory discovers near his feet a bright green bird feather. Thinking it might be a clue, he picks it up. He keeps the feather a secret.
The mystery remains very much in Cory’s consciousness as his friends celebrate the last day of school by taking flight in a mystical airborne journey across the skies of Zephyr on their bicycles.
Cory then tells the tale of that year of 1964 in a series of anecdotes and stories – some of which are humorous, some sad, some scary.
Like most Alabama towns of the 1960s, Zephyr was segregated and the black population of the area lived in their own town, upriver from Zephyr. Once a year, the black population came to Zephyr to pay homage to the mysterious monster that inhabited the river running through Zephyr. Led by a mysterious figure known as The Lady, the black men and women parade through town to the river where they toss meat into the water – their offering to Old Moses who is the stuff of legend among fishermen in the area.
Later that year, there is a flood in Zephyr and Cory and his family – who are decidedly not racists – head up river to assist the black families in building levies to stop the flooding river from destroying their town. While in a flooded home with another boy, Cory comes face to face with Old Moses himself – a real, honest to goodness sea monster! It moves in to eat Cory, just having finished devouring a large dog. Cory fights back with a stick and sticks it deep into Old Moses’ mouth. Old Moses, wounded, disgorges his last meal and then flees.
For his heroism, Cory is summoned before The Lady, who with her husband, is the unofficial leader of the town’s black population. She tells Cory that the area handyman will, from now on, be making repairs at the Mackenson residence gratis. She also promises Cory a new bicycle to replace his old one which has given up the ghost. All this largess is given in gratitude for Cory having saved the life of The Lady’s ward son from the mouth of Old Moses. She also tells Cory she knows about the murder and what he and his father witnessed and that the events weigh heavily on Cory’s father. She says she can help him find peace.
Corey’s summer flows by. He meets a kid who can throw a baseball like Sandy Koufax, but is not allowed to play sports or even associate with other kids. He and his buddies are tormented by bullies who harass them and beat them up. The first church service of summer is attacked by wasps emerging from a hidden nest in the ceiling of the church. Cory and his friends take life as it comes and enjoy themselves. They discover the joys of rock and roll music and play their little league baseball with reckless abandon.
In one of the most humorous anecdotes in the book, the Baptist preacher gets wind of the popularity of the Beach Boys with the town’s youth. He promises the town the ultimate sermon on the evils of rock and roll. Intrigued, Cory asks his parents to take him to the Baptist church to listen. There, the Baptist minister spins the Beach Boys record backwards, claiming to hear secret messages from Satan. He then releases from a box a monkey on a leash that he claims is Satan. As the Beach Boys play, he commands Satan to dance.
Except “Satan” has his own ideas. Instead of dancing at the command of the tormenting minister, he escapes from the leash and unleashes terror on the congregation, shitting all over the congregants and attacking a few before making his escape from the church. Satan tormented Zephyr residents for the rest of that summer.
Meanwhile, the county sheriff has told Cory’s father that the chances that the murder – if there was indeed a murder – will probably never be solved. The car cannot be retrieved. The only witness is Cory’s father who could not identify the man except to say he was someone he’d never seen before and that he had a strange tattoo on his arm.
Cory enters a writing contest that summer and decides to write a narrative account of what he and his father witnessed that late spring morning. Cory wins third place and is invited to dine with the son of the town’s wealthiest resident to discuss writing. This particular gentleman has the peculiar habit of walking about town stark naked. Cory meets him for dinner and they discuss writing since this oddball once published a book about Zephyr. He also discusses with Cory the murder. He tells Cory the murderer is almost certainly a night owl who doesn’t drink milk. The man was certainly beaten overnight and people who don’t drink milk tend to be insomniacs, he reasons.
Cory’s father is deeply tormented by the events of that late spring and, for the first time, he sees his father – not as the unbreakable pillar of his family – but as a human being, struggling with nightmares and haunting. He witnesses his father one night, sitting at a desk, writing questions to himself about what he saw. His father has lost weight and is pale and haggard all the time.
Cory’s sleep is haunted as well. In his dreams, he sees the faces of four little girls, blown up in a church. This is, of course, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing where four black Sunday school students were killed. Cory and his friends get an up close and personal look at racism when they take a camping trip and witness some Klansmen purchase a homemade bomb destined to be detonated at the opening of a civil rights museum in town.
Summer turns into autumn and Cory and his friends return to school. The murder mystery goes unresolved. While his summer is over, life lessons go on and Cory has some hard lessons left to learn.
He learns about death. He’s already encountered death in the murder of a stranger, but this is much more personal. His dog is hit by a car and injured badly. Cory’s father takes it to the veterinarian who tells Cory that his dog has zero chance of survival. He tells Cory the humane thing to do would be to put the dog to sleep. Cory can’t bring himself to do it. Instead, he wishes death away from his dog. His wish is granted and his dog lives – but in a much diminished capacity with lame legs and brain damage. Cory learns that sometimes, dead is better and ultimately has the dog put to sleep.
Shortly after school starts, Cory and his friends visit a local carnival where they pay 50 cents to see a real live dinosaur – a triceratops with its horn cut off. They marvel at the creature, but are appalled at the filth in its cage and the abuse it endures at the hands of its owner. One night, the creature manages to escape and flees into the woods near Zephyr, occasionally emerging from hiding to attack a car. Cory is confident that one of his buddies had a hand in the creature’s escape.
Death haunts Cory’s father that fall. Death haunts Cory as well. He’s still troubled by dreams of the four dead girls, unable to fathom the irrational hate that comes with racism. But death will visit Cory in person one more time that year. His best friend, Davy Ray, is badly wounded in a hunting accident. Cory visits him at the hospital. Davy Ray is weak and failing, but asks Cory to tell him a story. Cory obliges and leaves. Davy Ray dies the next day.
Cory’s father loses his job when the dairy he works for ceases home delivery after a new supermarket opens up. His dad is near the breaking point now and the pressure weighs heavily on Cory as well. But his father is offered a shot at retaining a little dignity and pride. It is revealed that the local sheriff has been taking money from the local moonshiner and small time crime lord. Before this sheriff resigns, he wants Tom Mackenson to help take him down. It is this man who sold the bomb that would have been detonated at the civil rights museum. The sheriff wants to right this one wrong before leaving town in disgrace. Tom agrees to stand with him.
The bootlegger’s son is arrested and there is a planned prisoner transfer at the local bus depot where he is to be shipped off to prison to await trial. Just as predicted, the bootlegger shows up with his other sons to shoot it out to free their brother. Tom Mackenson stands bravely as the bullets fly. Cory looks on from nearby. Finally, the shootout ends with nobody dead and the whole bootlegger family in custody. Cory’s father retains his pride and dignity and Cory’s faith in his father’s resolve is strengthened.
As the weather cools late in autumn, Cory’s mind turns to the murder. He’s put together some clues. A pair of spinster sisters has parrots that curse in German. One of those parrots has feathers that match the one Cory found at the scene. He learns that the parrots were recently treated by the local vet and that the veterinarian likes to stay up late, listening to short wave broadcasts from overseas. Cory has found his murderer.
He goes to the vet’s house to look for clues to confirm his theory and the vet takes him prisoner, intent on murdering him to cover up his crimes. Just in the nick of time, Cory’s father shows up with a couple Nazi hunters to save the day. The vet is revealed to be a former Nazi living in Zephyr under an assumed name. Cory is a hero and his father, through saving his son and apprehending the murderer has exorcised his demons as well.
The book winds down with an adult Cory Mackenson returning to Zephyr with his children to show them where he grew up. He is now a writer with a few best sellers under his belt. His old neighborhood has fallen into disrepair and the town has suffered. We learn that the Mackensons moved away from Zephyr just a short time after the murderer was captured when Tom Mackenson got a new job. But it didn’t have a happy ending. His father died just months later. As he ponders is old house, now vacant, he has a dialogue with the ghost of his father who tells him how proud he is to have him as a son.
Boy’s Life is a book that transcends being just a great book to emerge as something almost magical. Many great coming of age stories have been written by many great authors. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird is probably the best. Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine ranks up there as well and one cannot dismiss Stephen King’s novella, The Body. Boy’s Life ranks with these great works.
It resembles To Kill a Mocking Bird with its examination of race and violence in the era of Jim Crow. Boy’s Life’s fantastical elements and lyrical prose immediately bring to mind Dandelion Wine and the pre-adolescent journey of discovery resembles the characters and their bonding in The Body.
One might wonder why I did not focus more on the murder since readers assume that Boy’s Life, coming from “horror writer” Robert McCammon must be a murder mystery. The murder was not the central theme in the book. It disappeared from the pages for chapters at a time. It merely served as a focal point for the narrative.
Most of the book is series of anecdotes and short tales about Cory’s adventures with his friends. McCammon has stated that some are real, drawn from his own life growing up in rural Alabama. Others are fictional. Many are exaggerated in the telling – much as a boy would remember them rather than an adult recalling the chronology of his life. The fantastical narrative is the magic of this book.
The story of Boy’s Life, and Robert R. McCammon’s unhappy experiences with the publishing industry can be found within the pages of Boy’s Life. As Cory is discussing writing with the son of the town’s patriarch, the man tells him of the manuscript he submitted to his publisher. That manuscript was a series of stories about a town and its people. However, the publisher said that reader demographics indicated readers wanted murder mysteries and that his town was the perfect setting for a murder mystery. One can imagine McCammon, taking his coming of age story – his Dandelion Wine – to his publisher only to be sent back to revise the manuscript to insert a murder mystery.
Boy’s Life is frequently taught at the high school level. While nearly sexually sterile, the book does occasionally employ the dreaded “F” word. Interestingly, it assiduously avoids the dreaded “N” word while discussing race relations in 1960s Alabama. That use of “fuck” has led several school systems to attempt to ban the book from course work and from libraries. Like every good author, McCammon fights all attempts to ban his books. But in having his work banned, he joins a distinguished list of authors that includes Harper Lee, Mark Twain, D.H. Lawrence, Judy Blume, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King.
Robert McCammon has written some great books. Swan Song is the fan favorite. While Swan Song is epic with wonderful characters and an exciting story, Boy’s Life is a superior book in its prose and in its telling.
I recommended Boy’s Life to my book/scotch/cigar of the month club – my first successful nomination in four years of being a member. This group, most of which are college professors of some sort, universally loved it which is rare for our group. Of the more than 50 books we’ve read, several agreed that McCammon was the best wordsmith. I would heartily agree with that assessment.