A couple weeks ago I picked up a book called Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. The story was about a young man hired to work at a mysterious bookstore which is home to a very strange collection of books. The mystery gripped me drawing me further and further into the book, page after page spent in breathless anticipation. I finished in less than a week.
No, you read the title right. I’m still reviewing Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon. But I bring up Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore for sake of comparison. Because when reading Boy’s Life I was not gripped with a burning desire to forage further into the book, an unquenchable need to turn the page to see what happened next. I would put the book down for whole weeks at a time, reading other far more demanding tales in the gaps between. And yet, in retrospect, I can unequivocally say that Boy’s Life topped them all.
Hang around writers on Twitter for very long, and you’ll inevitably find them linking to blog post with titles like “How to Create Tension on Every Page”. There’s this drive to hook the readers right in the gut and pull them to the edge of their seats. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.
But I think we’d be wrong to dismiss the story that doesn’t turn up the heat beneath your feet to keep you dancing from one chapter to the next. There is more to art than tension; there is more to beauty than anticipation.
Boy’s Life is a story of the kind of magical childhood that can only truly exist in the mind, long lazy summers, daring adventures in the woods, unbreakable friendships, and the promise of a world filled wonder. It’s the story of a town, a safe familiar place where life is slow and easy. It’s the story of loss, of death, of an era fading into memory. In short it is Robert McCammon’s love letter to his boyhood.
If you read the synopsis of this book on most of the websites I’ve seen it’s spun as a murder mystery, but I take issue with that, and I’m pretty sure Robert McCammon would too. There’s a scene in Boy’s Life in which the protagonist-narrator, a boy named Cody, meets with the son of the richest man in town, a young man who’s not quite right in the head. He tells Cody about the book he tried to write about their hometown, Zephyr, how he just wanted to capture the people, the feel of how wonderful it was like to live there. He tells how he went to the publishers with his vignettes and was asked to add a murder mystery, told that people liked murder mysteries, and so he did, added in the gruesome telling of a tale of murder, feeling every moment as if he was murdering someone he loved more than anything.
And then you realize Robert McCammon is putting his words in this man’s mouth, that you’re reading a story of a small down, nothing more than memories and wishes with the sole narrative thread tying them together is a murder mystery that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the book.
Because you’ve got to have that hook. You’ve got to have the narrative tension pulling you forward through the pages. Love and memories and magic aren’t enough. So they say.
But the strength of Boy’s Life isn’t in the murder and the mystery. It’s in the wonder. It’s in the beauty. It’s in the magic of childhood filtered through the rose-colored lens of nostalgia.
It’s in showing you the joy of boyhood so perfectly and completely that when you’ve finally turned the last page you cannot help but weep for its loss.