One morning, in March 1964--as Zephyr, Alabama slumbers--young Corey Mackenson is riding with his father, a milkman, on his morning route. As they navigate a dangerous stretch of road, a car comes hurtling through the darkness, and plunges into a lake. Corey's dad, Tom Mackenson, pulls over, and jumps into the water to try and help. The driver is dead, badly beaten, handcuffed to the steering wheel, and he's beyond help.
Who killed the driver? Nobody in town is missing; nobody has heard anything. That's the mystery that forms the framework of "Boy's Life." The mystery, though, is just that: a framework upon which the author hangs all the comfort--and occasional discomfort--of growing up in a small town. There are so many shades and colors in this rich tapestry, that I could spend tedious hours describing them all.
"Boy's Life" reminds me of certain other novels of small-town life, like "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe," "A Short History of a Small Place," even some of Stephen King's more nostalgic works.
Robert McCammon obviously identifies with young Corey, who is a born storyteller and, eventually, aspiring writer. Through laughter and tears, schoolrooms and summer baseball fields; through all the good and bad we humans can muster, "Boy's Life" guides us, like the Trailways bus that stops a couple days a week at Zephyr's Shell station.
Regardless of his various adventures, Corey always comes back to the mystery. His nascent writer's mind can't let go of that morning, that car, and the mysterious stranger at the bottom of the lake. It's not just curiosity that fuels Corey's need to find a solution. His father has terrifying nightmares, where the dead man calls to him, inviting Tom Mackenson to join him down in the mud.
As any novel about the South in the early 1960's must, "Boy's Life" deals with racial issues. Reigning as a sort of queen over the African-American population is an elderly woman known simply as "The Lady." Rumors abound--not without a little bit of truth--that she's a voodoo priestess. When she meets Tom Mackenson at a town function, she senses his torment. She asks him if he believes in Jesus. Though he finds the question odd, he acknowledges that he does. Her response stuck with me from the first time I read this book, back in 1995 or so (when it was new, and I was younger):
"As do I. Jesus Christ was as perfect as a man can be, yet he got mad and fought and wept and had days of feelin' like he couldn't go on another step."
I'd never thought of it that way before.
The other line that has never left me is this: When an old man dies, a library burns down.
In other words, we are all filled with stories: rich histories, giddy comedies, terse dramas, sultry romances (obviously, in some of our cases, annoying thesauruses). We have stories--happy and sad alike--from childhood, through adolescence, young adulthood, middle age, and (if we're lucky) old age. When an old person dies, we lose so many stories, so many memories and images, so much knowledge and experience.
With "A Boy's Life", Robert McCammon has given us a section from Corey Mackenson's library. How much of this novel is semi-autobiographical, I don't know. But Corey, his parents, The Lady, The Moon Man, Mr Dollar at the barber shop, the ever-squabbling Glass sisters--all of Zephyr's scoundrels, saints, and everybody in between--are preserved here forever, frozen in the 60's.
Corey's life--and, indeed, "Boy's Life"--are most definitely worth the read.