Never mind Stephen King and John Irving, there's a flood of new old-fashioned novels out there, and we owe it all to CNN and the English department. Take Boy's Life, for example. Suffering from 24-hour information burnout on the one hand and deconstructionist pedantry on the other, Robert R. McCammon has lit out for the territory and reinvented the kind of naive and sentimental storytelling most of us thought we had to give up along with the Hardy Boys, Albert Payson Terhune, and baseball-card biographies. (Not the kind 12-year-old futures speculators keep today, but the stories of heroes that came with bubble gum and could be purchased for 5 cents.)
''See, this is my opinion,'' McCammon's narrator, Cory Mackenson, tells us: ''We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible....The truth of life is that every year we get farther away from the essence that is born within us.''
McCammon, who uses the term ''fictography'' for his particular brand of autobiographical fantasy, began his career as an author of paperback horror tales. Not one to husband his narrative energies, he writes here as if he had several lives to squander, weaving together if not exactly seamlessly enough plots and subplots to fill a half-dozen ordinary novels. ''My hometown,'' the narrator tells us, ''was a place called Zephyr, in south Alabama....When I was twelve years old, in 1964, Zephyr held about fifteen hundred people. There was the Bright Star Cafe, a Woolworth's, and a little Piggly-Wiggly grocery store....My hometown was full of heroes and villains, honest people who knew the beauty of truth and others whose beauty was a lie. My hometown was probably a lot like yours.''
According to Boy's Life, Zephyr also had a man-eating alligator, a clairvoyant voodoo woman, a passel of KKK bomb throwers, a fraudulent evangelist or two, a clan of homicidal bootleggers, an eccentric millionaire fond of strolling around town buck naked, a magical white stag, a dinosaur, a couple of ghosts, and a pair of renegade Nazis in hiding.
Not to mention, by the time the story runs its course, a gigantic flood, a meteor, a magic bicycle, an O.K. Corral- style shootout at the Trailways bus station, and a seemingly insoluble murder mystery that knits the whole improbable mess together. Exactly the world, in short, that an imaginative 12-year-old boy of the time and place would inhabit if he could. Even George Wallace, Bear Bryant, and Martin Luther King Jr. sidle their way into the story.
Alabama-crazy to the core, Boy's Life bears approximately the same relationship to a novel like The World According to Garp that a laser-lit Hank Williams Jr. extravaganza bears to a Pete Seeger sing-along. Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides comes closer, but for sheer screwball storytelling exuberance, McCammon's book is hard to top. There will be times when most adults will find themselves faintly embarrassed to be gobbling the thing like hot buttered popcorn, but gobble they will all the same. A-