Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Inconsistency in Robert McCammon’s Novel Boy’s Life
Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Inconsistency in Robert McCammon’s Novel Boy’s Life
Robert McCammon’s novel Boy’s Life takes place in the fictional Alabama town of Zephyr, a place that typifies small-town Southern life in many respects: eccentric characters socialize at the barbershops, whites and African-Americans fill their respective churches, boys go hunting in fall and play baseball in summer. In one respect, though, Zephyr is unique: magic seems to be everywhere. The narrator, Cory Mackenson, encounters people, creatures, and events that deviate from the reality most people experience. However, McCammon’s use of preternatural elements often is inconsistent and/or confusing, which, for some readers, may detract from the book’s otherwise superb storytelling. For example, in terms of their consistency with reality, the book’s two nonhuman creatures—Old Moses and “the creature from the lost world”—are depicted in significantly different ways. Also, a seemingly fantastical event, the boys’ ability to fly, is described as a product of Cory’s imagination, leading readers to question whether other magical elements can be explained in a similar fashion. Finally, McCammon provides no clear explanation as to why the town of Zephyr contains magical elements when the larger world around it does not.
Perhaps more than any other elements, the nonhuman “creatures” that populate Zephyr push the novel into the realm of fantasy. However, the novel’s two main creatures, Old Moses and the “creature from the lost world,” operate on different levels of reality. Cory describes Old Moses as the type of sea monster that, like the so-called Loch Ness monster, has haunted imaginations for centuries: “It’s head was flat and triangular, like a snake’s, but I think it was not just a snake because it seemed to have two small arms with spindly claws just below what would have been the neck. I heard what must have been its tail thwacking against a wall so hard the house shook” (105). The monster’s appearance in the novel, combined with its freakishly large tooth the junkman discovered, compel the reader to believe that Old Moses is a preternatural being. Upon first encounter, the dinosaurian “creature from the lost world” also appears to be otherworldly—i.e., from a world whose creatures have long since been extinct. However, Cory later assumes that this so-called monster is actually a rhinoceros with its horn removed. Given the charlatan nature of its owner, as well as the beast’s description in the novel, Cory’s assumption makes sense. This discovery may lead confused readers to go back and question whether Old Moses can similarly be explained in rational terms, which it cannot. That one creature is clearly otherworldly while the other only could be creates an unnecessary inconsistency.
In addition to inconsistency, the novel presents events that readers believe to contain magic, only later to discover that the magic was imagined. One of most charming passages in the novels occurs at the beginning of Book Two, when, on the last day of school, Cory and his friends meet for their annual ritual of flying above Zephyr. Upon first encountering this passage, readers might assume that Cory simply is imagining the scene. After all, earlier, Cory’s friends had doubted the existence of Old Moses—surely boys who could sprout wings would have no trouble believing in a sea creature. However, McCammon describes the boys’ flight in such detail—e.g., “(My wings) gave a jerking motion, like the reaction after a sneeze. The second flap was more controlled and powerful; the third was pretty as poetry” (138-9)— that readers likely will come to believe that the scene is real. Later that day, when Cory returns to the world of adults, he gives no indication that the flying had been imagined. Eight chapters later, however, when lost in the woods, Cory admits, “If ever I wished I could really fly, now was the time” (252). Thus, for over a hundred pages, readers have believed in a magical event that turns out to have been only a figment of Cory’s imagination. This may compel some readers to question whether some or all of the earlier preternatural events (e.g., Does Cory really meet Old Moses in the flood?) actually occur or whether they, too, are products of Cory’s fantasy.
Finally, Zephyr, Alabama, is a town where at least some magical elements (e.g., the Lady’s ability to conjure) are accepted by almost all of its residents, and thus should be accepted by readers, as well. Other highly fantastical elements, such as Old Moses’ existence, are believed by at least a few people. Thus, McCammon intends to depict Zephyr as a place whose reality differs from the reality experienced by most readers. Readers would readily accept such a world if McCammon had made it part of a nonspecific alternate universe. However, he places Zephyr in a real place and time and makes constant references to real historical events and people in Alabama, the United States, and even the larger world during the early 1960s. As there are no indications that magic exists outside of Zephyr, readers may be distracted by questions like the following: What is the source of Zephyr’s magic? Does magic exist outside of Zephyr that Cory is unaware of? If not, why is magic unique to Zephyr? Such questions pose minor distractions at best, yet McCammon could have avoided them entirely had he made the whole world of the novel magic and not simply one small place.
Magic is the lifeblood of Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, yet McCammon sometimes uses preternatural elements in a manner that may confuse perceptive readers. The inconsistent level of reality of the two nonhuman creatures; the confusion over whether Cory and his friends actually take flight; and the contrast between Zephyr’s magic and the larger world’s realism are examples of this flaw. Given the superb storytelling, the rich characterization, and the complex themes McCammon works into the novel, this flaw turns out to be a minor one. Still, it is enough to distract some readers and pull them out, at least momentarily, of an otherwise enchanting journey.
Preternatural Elements in Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life
Robert McCammon’s novel Boy’s Life takes place in the fictional Alabama town of Zephyr, a place that typifies small-town Southern life in all respects but one: magic is everywhere. The narrator, Cory Mackenson, encounters people, creatures, and events that deviate from the reality most people experience. This essay will examine a few of the more prominent preternatural elements in the novel. First, the Lady, an elderly African-American woman who befriends Cory, possesses a unique blend of magical powers that aids both Cory and his father. Second, Old Moses is a sea creature whose mythical status, for Cory, turns into reality. Finally, Cory himself appears to have a type of extrasensory perception that allows him, through dreams, to help avert disaster.
When Cory first meets the former slave known simply as “the Lady,” she is 106 years old and is as revered in the African-American hamlet of Bruton as she is feared by Zephyr’s largely white population. Most people in Zephyr, who encounter the Lady only when witnessing her annual ritual of feeding Old Moses, believe she practices a type of voodoo. Early in the novel, Cory’s own father Tom says the following about her: “. . .that woman plays with conjure dolls and black cats and God knows what all! I don’t think it’s right to take Cory into her house!” (116). Cory, however, discovers that the Lady derives her powers from a mixture of Christian and traditional African religious practices. This is illustrated in the Old Moses banquet itself, which occurs during the most holy Christian holiday period, Easter, and involves her performing the ritualistic Christian action of ringing a bell while she chants what appears to be an African word, “damballah.” In terms of the novel’s main plot, the Lady’s most important action is enacting a ritual that provides Cory and his father with the clues that eventually help to reveal Dr. Lezander as having murdered the man in Saxon Lake. This ritual, which involves bloodletting and conjuring spirits, indeed resembles the black magic Tom Mackenson feared earlier. Now, though, he accepts and appreciates her powers, as they not only provide important information but help him to expiate his inner torment.
That readers first learn of the Lady and Old Moses at the same time is not coincidental. As the Lady is the most magical person in the novel, Old Moses is the book’s most preternatural nonhuman character. Other seemingly fantastical creatures either can be explained in realistic terms—for example, the “creature from the lost world” may simply be a rhinoceros—or, like the phantom deer Snowdown, never actually appear in the novel. Old Moses, however, makes an appearance, and he is described as the type of sea monster that, like the so-called Loch Ness monster, has haunted imaginations for centuries. Though never having seen it, many people in the area, black and white, believe in the creature’s existence; Mr. Sculley even has proof in the form of Old Moses’ gigantic tooth. Unlike most human characters, Old Moses cannot be classified as good or evil: he tries to eat Cory and Gavin simply because they are available to be eaten. Like the torrential rains and flood in which he first appears, Old Moses is a part of nature, albeit a preternatural part, indifferent to human fate.
Finally, while the Lady helps the Mackensons discover Dr. Lezander’s true identity, Cory provides the older woman with information that allows her and other African-Americans to find the dynamite bomb set to destroy the Bruton Museum. Cory obtains this information from a recurring and symbolic dream, which he describes as the following:
That night I dreamed about the four black girls, all dressed up as if for church. . . .(T)hey stood talking to each other under a green, leafy tree. Two of them were holding Bibles. . . .One of them laughed, and then the others laughed and sound was like water rippling. Then there was a bright flash so intense I had to close my eyes, and I was standing at the center of thunder and a hot wind yanked at my clothes and hair. When I opened my eyes again, the four black girls were gone and the tree was stripped bare. (288)
Later, at the Bruton Museum, he sees pictures of the four girls killed by a Ku Klux Klan bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and their faces are those of the girls in his dream. When he shares this information with the Lady, she correctly interprets that someone in the area is planning to destroy the museum, which leads her and her friends to discover the dynamite bomb. Notably, Cory claims that he likely had never seen the picture of the four girls before viewing them at the museum, making their presence in his dreams an extrasensory phenomenon.
The town of Zephyr is replete with preternatural people and events, many of which Cory Mackenson encounters in the ten months over which Boy’s Life occurs. The Lady, Old Moses, and even Cory’s own recurring dream present realities that deviate from those experienced by most readers of McCammon’s novel. Though some might find these preternatural elements confusingly strange, even distracting, most readers likely understand them as central to the novel’s charming and unique portrait of an otherwise typical Southern town.
“It was a magic place”
Categorizing the Preternatural in Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life
Robert McCammon’s novel Boy’s Life takes place in the fictional Alabama town of Zephyr, a place that typifies small-town Southern life in many respects: eccentric characters socialize at the barbershops, whites and African-Americans fill their respective churches, boys go hunting in fall and play baseball in summer. In one respect, though, Zephyr is unique: magic seems to be everywhere. The narrator, Cory Mackenson, encounters people, creatures, and events that deviate from the reality most people experience. The novel’s presentation of preternatural elements is more complex than one might imagine when first reading the novel. Perceptive readers can categorize different ways McCammon presents these elements; this essay will examine a few of the more prominent categories. First, certain elements, such as Old Moses, are unambiguously preternatural. A second group of elements, including the “creature from the lost world,” appear to be preternatural but may in fact have rational explanations. Finally, some elements appear preternatural upon first glance but later turn out to be consistent with normal reality.
Old Moses is a prime example of an element in the novel that cannot be explained scientifically. Old Moses is not the book’s only fantastical creature, but the others either can be explained in realistic terms—for example, the “creature from the lost world” may simply be a rhinoceros—or, like the phantom deer Snowdown, never actually appear in the novel. Old Moses, however, makes an appearance, and Cory describes it as the type of sea monster that, like the so-called Loch Ness monster, has haunted imaginations for centuries: “It’s head was flat and triangular, like a snake’s, but I think it was not just a snake because it seemed to have two small arms with spindly claws just below what would have been the neck. I heard what must have been its tail thwacking against a wall so hard the house shook” (105). Another unambiguously preternatural element is the black magic practiced by the elderly ex-slave called the Lady. For example, dozens of green snakes oozing out of Biggun Blaylock’s rifle can be only the result of the Lady’s spell. Also, the Lady’s bloodletting and spirit-conjuring ritual towards the end of the novel gives Tom Mackenson the clues he needs to discover Dr. Lezander’s true identity, clues he could not have obtained in any other manner.
If Old Moses and the Lady undeniably possess otherworldly qualities, other elements in the novel are neither clearly preternatural nor clearly rational. For instance, Cory provides the Lady with information that allows her and other African-Americans to find the dynamite bomb set to destroy the Bruton Museum. Cory obtains this information from a recurring and symbolic dream involving four young black girls, girls whose faces he later sees in newspaper clippings. Thus, it appears that the girls’ spirits enter Cory’s dream before he encounters their photographs. However, Cory says more than once that he might have previously seen the girls’ photographs in one of his mother’s magazines. Another ambiguous element is Nemo Curliss’ pitching ability. A scrawny child with no outwardly apparent athletic prowess, Nemo eventually displays a pitching arm that a major leaguer would envy. Before leaving Zephyr, Nemo throws up a ball that appears never to return to earth! As Nemo gives no hint of having been trained or even practicing regularly, his talent may indeed be unearthly. However, as Cory says of Nemo’s ability, “How much of this had been a gift and how much he had trained himself to do” (165-6) is unclear.
The last category features elements that, on first glance, may seem to be preternatural but later are shown to have a rational explanation. For example, when the Branlin brothers attack Cory and friends the second time, Johnny Wilson pummels Gotha. Given how badly the Branlins had beaten Johnny previously, the younger boy’s skill in the second bout seems unearthly. Later, though, Cory reveals that Johnny had studied and practiced boxing techniques over an entire summer. Another example is Cory’s supposed journey to “the city” after having hopped on a train and joined a band of hobos. Princey, one of the hobos, begins to reveal details about Cory’s life that, realistically, he could not have known. Later, the group’s journey into “the city” becomes a descent into an underworld that takes on increasingly surreal and ghoulish qualities. At the end of the journey, Cory reveals that he simply has been dreaming—the nightmarish trip indeed was a nightmare.
Preternatural events and characters fill Boy’s Life with a sense of wonder and excitement, and perceptive readers can categorize these elements according to their consistency with normal reality. Some elements, such as Old Moses, can be described only in fantastical terms; others, such as Nemo Curliss’ pitching ability, are neither clearly realistic nor magical; and a final group of elements, such as Cory’s eerie journey into “the city,” at first appear preternatural but later can be explained rationally. The complexity and variety with which McCammon presents these elements embellishes a novel already rich with memorable characters, lush descriptions, and haunting storylines.