"We ran like young wild furies,
The woods were dark and deep.
Before us demons fled.
We checked Coke bottle bottoms
to see how far was far.
Our worlds of magic wonder
were never reached by car.
We loved our dogs like brothers,
our bikes like rocket ships.
We were going to the stars,
to Mars we'd make round trips.
We swung on vines like Tarzan,
and flashed Zorro's keen blade.
We were James Bond in his Aston,
we were Hercules unchained.
We looked upon the future,
and we saw a distant land,
where our folks were always ageless,
and time was shifting sand.
We filled up life with living,
with grins, scabbed knees, and noise.
In glass I see an older man,
but this book's for the boys."
Thus begins Robert McCammon's masterful 1991 novel Boy's Life. The epigraph beautifully captures the spirit of the adventure that awaits the reader's full attention and imagination in the few hundred pages ahead.
It is the story of Cory Mackenson, a young boy living in Zephyr, Alabama in his twelfth year of existence. As Cory walks the fine line between childhood and adolescence, his experiences move the novel from young adult/coming of age literature to science fiction to magical realism to fantasy to mystery and nearly every genre in between.
Central to the story is Cory's witnessing a horrifying event. While riding along with his father on his milk delivery route, the two are nearly in a head on collision with a car that careens around a hillside curve with no regard to their passage. Narrowly missing them in what would have surely been a terribly catastrophic wreck, the car soars through a guard rail and it (along with its driver) crashes into the unnaturally deep lake below. Cory's father, acting on sheer adrenaline and heroism in the throngs of tragedy, makes the unthinkable dive into the water after the car. Grasping for the life he knows must be panicking beneath the surface, when Tom Mackenson reaches the driver's door he finds, instead, a man who has been brutally murdered -- a piano string still firmly embedded within the skin of his pale grey neck, eyes open, white without vision.
The aftermath of the near death experience for himself, the trauma for his father, and the uneasiness that such an occurrence -- the wreck and the murder(er) responsible for the wreck -- brings to Cory, as a resident of the quiet Alabama town, a moment for maturation that forever alters the way he sees the world and the way he feels about having to grow up to face its realities.
As the rest of the story unfolds, Cory teeters between the difficult and often brutal realizations a young man must make about his father as he broaches manhood and the gift of imagination that a young boy can use to keep that man and others in line with the gods for a bit longer. Through a cast of characters that are each as unforgettable as the next, the reader is reminded of the incredible experience that is childhood.
"We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God's sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they'd allowed to wither in themselves."
In following with the narrator's laments of what must happen to us as we face our coming of age, the novel ends with a revisiting of Zephyr by an adult Cory and his young family. Managing to avoid the cheesy overdone "look, all our friends are grown ups now" adult scenes so often found in these sorts of things, McCammon's protagonist looks back on his past with fondness and deep, excruciating, urgent pain. Somehow, the boy who could speak to the stars allowed the magic to be pushed out of himself. However, the light in the eyes and voice of his child as she inhabits Zephyr's physical space for the first time signals to us that the magic is not gone. We just can't see it anymore.
That realization is both the most encouraging note of the text and the most heartbreaking one. To see the world through the heart of a child is truly a gift with an expiration date. Don't we all wish the shelf life were a little bit longer?