GUEST REVIEW: Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

GUEST REVIEW: Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

Author Julie Leto offers up a guest review of Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. Boy’s Life was a book challenged by a parent in the Hernando County School District as “inappropriate” because of bad language. Mr. McCammon flew to the Hernando County School Board meeting to defend his book and prevailed.

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At its most basic level, Boy's Life by Robert McCammon is the story of Cory Mackenson, a twelve-year old boy growing up in Zephyr, Alabama in the late fifties. But McCammon, a lyrical author with a flair for seeing the world through the eyes of a child, has skillfully framed the story by telling it in a balanced combination between Cory's perspective as a child and his adult point of view. There's no flashback&emdash;or, in a way, the entire story is a flashback, with only the first and last chapters happening to the adult Cory. But this is not a new literary device and it works especially well here. The reader is immediately drawn into Cory's coming-of-age story and we live his experiences with him, but the words belong to the adult Cory, so they are filled with metaphorical delights that will appeal to the reader who might want to skirt the edge between genre and literary fiction.

Now, let me say up front that I swore off literary fiction a few years ago when I retired from teaching high school English. I discovered this book when it was required reading for high school sophomores at a school I taught at in Georgia. I bought a copy soon after my first year at the school, in preparation for teaching it in the Spring and I was blown away. I'd never read anything that appealed to me on both a personal and professional level. Every page containing something exciting and something teachable. Now, re-reading it as only a writer, I was once again blown away by the amazing quality of the storytelling. I kept thinking this book should have won this author accolades on par with a major book award. Yes, it's that good.

To say that McCammon's talent with words is magical is an understatement and a pun. Not only is he weaving a complicated tale about growing up in the South, racism, cruelty, traditions, childhood, innocence, superstition, realism, fantasy and countless other themes that he manages to sew into a cohesive tapestry, but it has a plot, too. A really good one. Near the beginning of the book, Cory goes with his father on his milk delivery route. As they are driving past Saxon's Lake, a water-filled former quarry, a car rushes past them and goes into the water. Cory's father, Tom, dives in to save the driver, but the tattooed driver has been choked to death by a piano wire and is handcuffed to the steering wheel as the car begins to submerge. Tom is nearly dragged down as well, all while Cory watches, and the event is the impetuous for not only the action of the book, but for the emotional journeys as well.

What I think is missing from many thrillers (not that I'd necessarily characterize this book as a thriller, but it comes close) is emotion. In fact, in most genre fiction outside of romance, I find that emotions are given short shrift. Not so in BOY'S LIFE. McCammon milks the emotion out of every scene and I found myself laughing heartily in some places, reading wide-eyed in others and then mopping up tears from those very same eyes just a few pages later. Every scene contains a wealth of emotion to share with Cory and his compatriots. Cory's first crush. His love for his dog. His respect for his parents. His ambivalence toward his grandparents. His conflicts with his friends and their conflicts with their families.

I think what I love most about this book is the strength of the themes. It's the kind of book you want to read at the same time as someone else you know, because trust me, you'll want to talk about it. As I mentioned, this book was taught to high school sophomores and a day didn't go when the students didn't engage in spirited discussions about the assigned reading the night before. I should mention that the sophomore class that I taught were twenty kids whose teacher the previous year had spend most of the time letting them do their lessons out on the lawn or while watching cartoons on television. These were kids who were not used to having expectations thrust upon them, so when they got copies from me of a book that topped 500 pages, they looked at me like I was nuts. And yet, I'd say that 18 out of 20 of them read the book cover to cover when all was said and done. They enjoyed the class discussions and felt a sure sense of accomplishment when they reached the end. I wondered if I'd still experience that same awe of this book reading it as a "lay person" and not as a teacher and I'm glad to say, I did.

I was very pleased to learn that Simon & Schuster re-issued the book, so buying a new copy from Amazon was a snap. I haven't read any of McCammon's other work, but this one is a classic and is usually the book I mention when I'm asked in interviews, "What is your favorite book of all time?" The book has been described as McCammon's ŝtour de force" and I agree wholeheartedly.

On final note, while doing a bit of research before writing my review, I learned that this book was challenged by a school board not two counties away from me. Had I known, I would have shown up at the school board meeting ready to defend this book to the death. Luckily, the author himself showed up. I respected McCammon as a writer immeasurably just because of the book, but for his reasoned fight against mindless censorship, he's won my lifelong devotion.

~Julie Leto
Vampires are so five minutes ago…
PHANTOM PLEASURES, April 2008
http://www.plotmonkeys.com

This book can be purchased in mass market. No ebook format I could find.

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Have an absolutely favorite book that you want to share with us? Write a review. There’s a real luxury in re-reading a book that we love. It represents a certain nostalgia and comfort. I think giving ourselves permission to re-read from time to time is a reading treat that we all need. Consider submitting a review of your favorite book for review. It could be a childhood book, a collection of stories, a biography, or even a romance. There is no limit in terms of genre. The only qualification is that it is a book that the reader loved. Email jane at jane at dearauthor dot com