Robert McCammon’s 1991 novel Boy’s Life (not to be confused with Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life: A Memoir) is a richly imagined, episodic, and often sentimental 1991 tale with horror/fantasy shadings about a white 12-year-old boy growing up in a racially segregated town in the south during the 60s. It’s an odd, rich soup, in which incidents involving good-old-boy townsfolk doing KKK stuff sit alongside fantastic bits like a stegosaurus getting loose from a circus van and then charging out of the woods to attack cars on the highway, mistaking them for rival dinosaurs.
In between, there are loads of Bradburian reminiscences from the perspective of our boy narrator, Cory. They are magical memories of small town growing up, awash in a romantic nostalgic afterglow. Tales of bullies, baseball, camping trips and nascent encounters with the mysterious species known as girls, as well as portraits of oddball locals like the rich guy’s grown son who walks around town stark naked. (Everyone in town is used to it.) There are also vignettes involving faithful dogs and a seemingly-enchanted bicycle with a personality all its own.
Along the way, we’re treated to danger, death and a mystery involving a murder victim submerged in a car in a lake, an incident witnessed by Cory and his dad. In particular, it’s Cory’s dad who’s haunted by the horror of not being able to help the bound, sinking victim. The quest for a solution to this mystery (no spoilers here), and the peace of mind it would bring to Cory’s dad, becomes the main unifying narrative thread, but dozens of others are woven in between.
Perhaps best to think of the book as a phantasmagorical tapestry with dollops of sociological/historical observations of the period. From a narrative perspective, the author unapologetically violates the perspective of his first-person narrator (Cory), cutting away to incidents that Cory did not witness. Whether this is a faux pas or an act of supreme authorial confidence is something the reader must decide.
I enjoyed the Boy’s Life a lot, although the episodic structure made forward narrative momentum sag in places, and its extremely fond and nostalgic perspective on growing up is a bit sweet for my taste. But the author cannot be faulted for lack of imagination or invention. This is a richly baked cake of the warm, wondrous, adventure-packed boyhood we all deserved but didn’t get.