Coming-of-age story has a universal message

October 13, 1991|By Randi Henderson | Randi Henderson,Ms. Henderson is a writer for The Sun.

BOY'S LIFE. Robert R. McCammon. Pocket Books. 440 pages. $21.95. With his last novel, "Mine," Robert McCammon made the leap from horror to general-interest fiction and the message was clear: Here's a writer to watch. With his new book, he has made an even greater leap. In "Boy's Life," Mr. McCammon makes it obvious he is a literary force to be reckoned with.

"Boy's Life" does more than artfully tell a story. It does more than develop fully wrought characters, create meticulously crafted dialogue and bring a setting and an era vividly to life. It does it all with an elegance of language that provides a poetic counterpoint to the cadences of southern dialogue, and with the subtlety of symbolism that turns a coming-of-age story into a universal and insightful comment on the human condition.

It's 1964 in Zephyr, Ala., and 12-year-old Cory Mackenson is accompanying his father on his milk-delivery route. What happens that cold March morning seems no more likely than the fact that by the time Cory is out of his teens, milk routes will be a thing of the past, replaced by gleaming and ubiquitous supermarkets: Cory and his father see a car plummeting by into the bottomless depths of Saxon's Lake, a nude and very dead driver at the wheel.

Who is he and who killed him? Murders are certainly not commonplace in Zephyr. No body is recovered, no one is missing, no evidence of murder found. But what happened turns out to be more than just an unexplainable event, but an indelible mark on the lives of Cory and especially his father, who is haunted by recurring nightmares replaying the scene and his helplessness.

There will be a satisfactory resolution to this mystery -- but not before Cory has grappled with death and racism, town bullies and overprotective mothers, and other mysteries of life.

Because Mr. McCammon's history is in the horror genre, there are times in "Boy's Life" when you might wonder what is really happening. Is Cory's bike really magic with a headlight that is a seeing eye? Is that a sea monster in the river running by Zephyr, or a more explainable phenomenon? Do boys (and their dogs) really fly on the last day of school, as they do here in one of the most wondrous scenes ever written:

My own wings suddenly burst from my shoulder blades, unfurling like brown flags. They ripped through my shirt, hungry for wind. I felt the delirium of freedom lighten my bones. As I began to rise, I had a few seconds of panic akin to the summer's first jump into the cold waters of the public pool. My wings had been tight and dormant under my flesh since the end of August. . . . And then my wings filled up with wind and I felt their awesome muscular might. They gave a jerking motion, like the reaction after a sneeze. . . . "I'm doin' it!" I shouted as I rose after my friends and their dogs in the bright sky.

If your questions aren't answered by the tightly wrapped conclusion of "Boy's Life," they won't matter much anymore. The truth, the reality, is in the telling. Robert McCammon knows that and so do his readers.

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