Think Something Wicked This Way Comes without a focused antagonistic plot line. Think Alice Hoffman. Think of something leisurely, and winding, with just a trace of the unreal. Think of boyhood stories from your southern grandpa, told by a master.
Boy’s Life is very evocative, an atmospheric picture of Cory Mackenson, a young man growing up in a small Alabama town during the 1960s. One early morning, he’s with his father making milk deliveries when they witness a car speeding into a lake of endless depth. His father attempts to rescue the driver only to discover he is already dead, savagely beaten and strangled. It becomes a transformative moment for his father, and perhaps for Cory as well. The chapters that follow often refer to it, but not in any plot-moving way. There is a sleep-over at a friend’s house. There is the death of the boy’s bike and a junkman. A church service with wasps. A town flood. An elderly black woman. A bike. The last day of school. A new boy moving into town. A cross burning on a lawn. His first typewriter. An overnight in the woods. All the sort of things that one might look back on one’s life and say, “I remember when,” when thinking of those moments that encapsulate a feeling, a change, a pivotal experience. Intertwined through them is a strain of magic, but not ‘magic’ in the sense that we usually use the word in modern literature, but life magic from the perspective of an imaginative child.
While the storytelling was masterful, there is no clear sense of plot beyond ‘day-in-the-life’ and self-discovery, leaving the conflict-focused reader searching for a connection between chapters. Since both the book blurb and the first chapter hint that the lake experience was the harbinger of something strange, it is an understandable confusion. There are dribbles and moments that contribute to the puzzle of the dead man, as well as the reverberating effect on the father, but truly, serious plot development and resolution is left until the last 80 pages of an over 500-page book. The murder bookends this section of the boy’s life, but does not drive his experiences.
The writing is lyrical and beautiful:
“When people get weepy at movies, it’s because in that dark theater the golden pool of magic is touched, just briefly. Then they come out into the hard sun of logic and reason again and it dries up, and they’re left feeling a little heartsad and not knowing why. When a song stirs a memory, when motes of dust turning in a shaft of light takes your attention from the world, when you listen to a train passing on a track at night in the distance and wonder where it might be going, you step beyond who you are and where you are. For the briefest of instants, you have stepped into the magic realm.”
I think if one heads into it expecting more of a Faulkner-esque short story collection, the read is more likely to be successful and satisfying. The writing is lovely. The characters are well developed, and McCammon even manages to imply the real at the same time the narrator is interpreting the fantastic. I also appreciate the contextualizing and gentle exploration of racism during a transformative time in the south. He also nicely captures the feeling of impending adulthood shadowing the edges of the tales, as well as those inklings when one starts to realize adults are people with their own foibles and may even have been young once.
“He lifted his face to me. In the hard, cold light he looked terribly old. I thought I could see his skull beneath the thin flesh, and this sight frightened me. It was like looking at someone you loved very much, slowly dying… I saw all too clearly that my father–not a mythic hero, not a superman, but just a good man–was a solitary traveler in the wilderness of anguish.”
Ultimately, be prepared to go slow. I often read it before bed, as it was usually soothing, not action driven, and each chapter encapsulated. Normally, I wouldn’t give a book I fell asleep on four stars, but the characterization as well as overall writing really are impressive. Highly recommended–for the right mood.
“There is something about nature out of control that touches a primal terror. We are used to believing that we’re the masters of our domain, and that God has given us this earth to rule over. We need this illusion like a good night0light. The truth is more fearsome: we are as frail as young trees in tornadoes, and our beloved homes are one flood away from driftwood. We plant our roots in trembling earth, we live where mountains rose and fell and prehistoric seas burned away in mist. We and the towns we have built are not permanent; the earth itself is a passing train. When you stand in muddy water that is rising toward your waist and you hear people shouting against the darkness and see their figures struggling to hold back the currents that will not be denies, you realize the truth of it: we will not win, but we cannot give up.”