Ok, I know that the past was not nearly as idyllic as "Leave it to Beaver" or "The Brady Bunch" would have us believe. There was ugliness-child abuse and alcoholism and racism and poverty are not exactly new phenomenon in human history. But if you were lucky, and you grew up in the 60s and 70s in America, your dad had a decent job in a mill or a factory, mom was home to greet you after school with a snack, and your summer was full of bike-riding and swimming and catching fire-flies. It is that America that exists in Richard McCammon's Zephyr, Alabama, the setting of his novel Boy's Life. The main character, Cory, is a 12 year old boy, in that awkward phase we now call the 'tweens. His dad was a milkman, his mom a stay at home mother, and he and his four best friends loved comics and baseball and looking for arrowheads. But, just as we know that the good ol' days weren't always that good, Zephyr has its secret horrors hiding below the surface. One morning, on the way to school, Cory and his father see a car go over the guardrail and into the lake. Cory's dad jumps in to save the driver, only to find that he is already dead-his face unrecognizable, a piano wire wrapped around his throat, handcuffed to the steering wheel. This incident haunts Cory's father, and throughout the course of the novel we find out what happened to the man in the car. The novel takes place over the course of a year, and is chock-full of magical happenings, culminating in the resolution of the original mystery.
The novel is written very much in the style of "Stand By Me" by Stephen King, and there appeared to be a few send-ups to the great man himself-a pet that comes back from the dead, a ghost car that prowls the roads. McCammon sets a scene about as well as King does, with evocative descriptions and creative turns-of-phrase. Perhaps it was my own summers spent in rural southern Alabama as a kid, but the characters and story felt very authentic to me, even as the magic strains belief. While reading the novel, one can take the story literally as a supernatural mystery, or one can see the magic as a metaphor for the magical thinking we all have in childhood, when monsters under the bed are real, and riding our bikes really does make us feel like we've sprouted wings to fly. It is also very much the story of one boy going from child to not-quite-a-man, and realizing that the adults in his life are not entirely what he thought them to be. Cory learns some hard lessons the year he was 12, but they are lessons that all of us learn at one point or another. Most of McCammon's other novels sound very much like lurid monster fiction, but they are on my to-read list anyway, because I have to believe that the man that wrote this thoughtful, nostalgic book handled those stories with the same finesse he used writing Boy's Life.