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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

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

15 Comments

  1. Nora Roberts
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 07:44:10

    Julie, a wonderful review of one of my all-time favorite books.

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  2. Julie Leto
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 08:32:39

    Thanks, Nora. I was more than a bit nervous…wanted to do the book justice and that’s no easy feat.

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  3. Terri Schaefer
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 08:45:11

    This is one of my favorite books of all time, and one that not a lot of folks have heard about. Both Boy’s Life and Swan Song always hit me like a punch to the gut (in a good way, of course *g*). I think I’ve gone through about ten copies of each, after “loaning” them to folks and never getting them back! Because both are such fantastic novels, I never begrudge the “borrowers”, because they’re usually folks I’m trying to pull back into reading.

    GREAT review Julie!

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  4. Alison Kent
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 10:31:18

    Oh, Julie. We’ve gushed over this book together so many times, haven’t we? I need to pull it out and read it again.

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  5. Alison Kent
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 10:34:54

    Oh, and if you want to read another one of his, try The Wolf’s Hour. It’s one I’ve always wanted to see on film, but fear it could never be done right!

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  6. vanessa jaye
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 11:11:10

    Now how’s a girl supposed to make her bookstore giftcard last around here with all these enticing reviews? I’ve got to pick up my library hold– Jen Cruisie/Bob Mayer’s Agnes & The Hitman — after work, so I’ll see if this one is in stock. If I love it, I’ll buy it later. On the other hand, the bookstore is two blocks away from the library…..

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  7. Karmyn
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 14:56:43

    This has been one of my favorites since I first bought over ten years ago. The characters, the setting, the mystery, the emotions, etc. It all brings the story to life. Reading this, I felt as if I were living the story with Cory. Too bad Robert McCammon is pretty much retired. Sings the Nightbird is pretty good, too.

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  8. Jane
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 15:25:14

    I wish this were an ebook. Perhaps it will be soon as part of S&S’s backlist digitization effort.

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  9. Julie Leto
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 17:31:40

    Vanessa, I really enjoyed Agnes and the Hitman. If I had my copy around here, I’d send it, but it looks like I already lent it out! It’s good to know so many people loved this book…I wonder if MacCammon knows? There’s no way to contact him via his website. I already looked. Trust me, you’ll love Boy’s Life.

    I, too, have given away a ton of copies. At the end of teaching, a lot of kids gave me their copies and I’m pretty sure they’re all gone now.

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  10. vanessa jaye
    Dec 31, 2007 @ 21:47:14

    Thanks for even thinking about sending Julie, that was very nice of you. :-) I got to the library too late, but I’ll pick Agnes up on Thursday. I’m really looking forward to it. I will probably buy Boy’s Life, simple because I just noticed the page count. I’m a real jerk about long books and tend to avoid them. Or the sequels, even when I loved the first book. Stupid, I know, but right around page 415 I start getting resentful that the damn story isn’t finished yet so I can go on to another book. lol. I could prop open ever door on my street with the number of 500 page epics that languish in my tbr pile… ::shame::

    But given the overwhelming positive feedback on this one I’ll make an effort to read it… some time next year. heh.

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  11. Daniel E. Friedman
    Jan 01, 2008 @ 20:44:14

    Although I have complete confidence in this author, it’s still nice to see such a splendid review. Thanks.

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  12. susannah
    Aug 25, 2008 @ 20:39:58

    i have to read this for summer reading and write an essay. what are some examples of imagination in the book?

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  13. Philip A Moore
    Oct 25, 2008 @ 13:23:04

    I love this book. it’s one I recommend to anyone. it’s literary stile is like know book I have ever read. Most writers when they write in the first person simplify the writing and cut down on the details Robet McCammon doesn’t. Boy’s life is easily the most detailed books ever written in the first person. I like to think about the characters. ones that stand are Vernin the son of the richist man in town and the local nudist ,the old Lady and Moon Man bike and the attac monkey. This book is as much fun to think about as it is to read.

    good day

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  14. Tim White
    Jan 24, 2011 @ 13:17:44

    Been using the book in class for fifteen years now. Each year the kids decide at the end of the year which of the fifteen books in the class is their favorite. Boy’s Life Wins every time and outdistances perennial favorites Catcher in The Rye, Catch 22, and Power of One. Their comments usually include their happiness at reading a book the successfully unites coming of age, racial questions, “the sixties” and has a carefully concocted mystery. All of them realize that Boy’s Life is the novel Vernon Thaxter should have written…and that means they understand the craft that McCammon shows in this very teachable book.

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  15. Human Condition
    Dec 10, 2011 @ 16:19:29

    I left school 7 years ago and then studied literary arts at university. I must say that in the two senior years that followed me first reading this book and all through uni i have never read a book as part of a syllabus that i so enjoyed. Great review of it too, thanks

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