Let's face it—Cam doesn't start out as such a likeable dude. His early brush with death (back when he was just a wee one) has left him disappointed with what the world has to offer, and he seems to want to coast through life, contributing only the bare minimum of effort or care. Here's Cam's take on the impact of his near-death experience for your consideration:
The thing is, before they pulled me out, everything had seemed made of magic. Like I really believed in this crazy dream. But the minute I came to on the hard, glittery, spray-painted, fake snow and saw that marionette boy pulling the same plastic fish out of the hole again and again, I realized it was all a big fake. The realest thing I'd ever experienced was that moment under the water when I almost died. And in a way, I've been dying ever since. (1.33)
In other words, though he lived, Cam hasn't felt particularly connected to being alive ever since he almost drowned as a kid. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this is Cam's constant quest for numbness, his desire to emotionally ignore everything that's going on around him. For example, when his dad proclaims how much he loves him over Cam's dying body, saying that they'll always be a part of each other, Cam immediately feels the need to retreat:
It feels like there's a walrus sitting on my chest, and my eyes sting. I'd give anything to get high right now, to get good and numb. (28.14)
Yeah, Cam just can't cope with feelings at all. And while part of this seems connected to his brush with death as a kid, another part is due to the fact that emoting would ruin the image of nonchalance that he's worked so hard to perfect. See, Cam feels like a disappointment no matter what he does when compared to his sister—the pretty, perfect, and popular Jenna—so he's invested in, well, not being invested in his life. It's just easier (think: less vulnerable) to shrug and act like he doesn't care. Again, this kid really likes to avoid feelings.
So Cam constantly sets the bar low for himself, and when possible, moves it even lower. He promises his dad week after week that he'll mow the lawn, and yet every weekend his dad is out in the yard doing what Cam has promised to do. Cam's thoughts on this phenomenon? Rather than feeling guilt, he's rather pleased with himself:
It seems a bad time to point out that I am unreliable. Or I'm reliable when it comes to being unreliable. (6.19)
There's a cleverness to the turn of phrase here that lets us know Cam is more self-satisfied with his empty chore promises than, say, feeling badly that his dad has to pick up the slack. It's almost like a joke to Cam, and once again, it all comes down to maintaining a sense of detachment. He says, "I just want to keep things as they are—no expectations equals no failed expectations equals no hurt feelings equals everything's cool" (4.32). Yikes.
Eubie is onto Cam's game, and he's the only one who has the guts to call him out on his baloney.
"Hey, Cam-run!" Eubie says when I walk in the door. "Where you been?"
"Still? That's not right." He takes a good look at me. "You look worn, my friend. Zombified."
"Got no color. You need to get out. Experience things. Play music. Fall in love."
"Yeah, I'm on it. Night and day," I say, flipping through a bin of novelty records.
"Why you giving me that smart-ass shit? I'm serious," Eubie says. "Life is short, my friend."
"So they say. Got anything new for me?"
Eubie puts his hands on the counter and leans forward. "No," he says. "Unless you want to borrow that Junior Webster record."
"Maybe some other time."
"All right. Not gonna push you. But you missing out. Hey, ch-ch-check it out," Eubie says, waving a travel itinerary at me. "Got me two tickets to New Orleans for Mardi Gras."
"Who's the other ticket for?" Eubie puts a hand to his chest and staggers backward in mock shock. "Cam-run? Did you just ask a personal question? Did you express an interest in your fellow man, in someone other than your own miserable self? Lord, Jesus! It's a miracle—that's what it is!"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I say, pretending it doesn't bother me. I'm interested in other people. I'm interested in having sex with Staci Johnson. That's a form of interest. (10.3-15)
Seriously, have you ever met anyone so cynical? Geez. Part of Cam's problem, though, is the fact that Eubie is the only one willing to talk to him like this, so Cam basically just coasts along with his cynicism unchecked. His mom is somewhere off in la-la land, his sister won't give him the time of day, and his dad is too busy with his own affairs (pun totally intended) to put any effort into snapping his son out of this self-imposed detachment. Even Cam's friends (the bathroom stoners Kevin, Kyle, and Rachel) are acquaintances at best:
I guess we're sort of friends. If getting high in high school bathrooms and occasionally sharing a table in the caf counts as friendship. (2.24)
When Cam thinks of a great one-liner during class, he doesn't even have anyone to share it with: "You dismissed us on day one, I think. It's the kind of sardonic comment that would be good to share with a mate, a pal, a sidekick and coconspirator. If I had one" (2.7). No wonder Cam feels like life is one big disappointment. In his refusal to let himself connect with the people and happenings around him, he's put himself on a pretty lonely road.
Now for some good news. Despite his apathy, Cameron eventually learns all about friendship and how to care about other people. It's kind of sad that it takes a death-sentence from a disease that slowly eats his brain in order for Cam to develop these loving relationships, but we'll pretend not to notice the fact that all of this growth takes place inside his own rotting mind. Just look the other way.
It's a slow progression, but Gonzo is the kid who finally breaks Cam of his selfish ways. Maybe it's his short stature that makes him vulnerable, or his reliance on an inhaler during times of duress. Or perhaps it's his adorable afro. No matter—the point is that somewhere along the line, Cam stops thinking about Gonzo as useless baggage and starts counting him as a friend.
He has every right to call his mom and head back to Texas, but I hope he won't. The truth is, I've kind of gotten used to his neurotic weirdness, and I'd miss it if he left. Maybe that's what real friendship is—getting so used to people that you need to be annoyed by them. (29.191)
Hey, it's a start, right? Sure Cam keeps some emotional distance by implying that Gonzo annoys him and referring to his pals "neurotic weirdness," but the truth remains: Cam has grown pretty fond of this guy. And when Balder makes his dramatic entrance, his Viking sense of devotion completes the gang:
"No matter if he has lost his wits completely and speaks like one whom the dogs should tear asunder in a mercy killing," Balder continues. "This is a quest. I pledged my loyalty to Cameron back on the cul-de-sac. I shall see it through till the end." (29.189)
It's a good thing these guys band together, too, since the three of them are quickly thrust into dangerous situations. Yes, all the action technically unfolds inside Cam's head, but still. Together, Cam and his pals defeat the fire giants, close up the wormhole, and save the universe. In fact, his friendships wind up meaning so much to Cam that even though he is dying, he wouldn't give them up:
"Maybe there's a universe where I don't get this disease at all. Where none of this happens." As soon as I say it, I think of Dulcie. Of Gonzo and Balder and this whole nutty trip, how I wouldn't trade parts of it for anything. (35.11)
Yup, the cynical Cam we start this tale out with is nowhere to be found. He has friends now, and if dying is the price he has to pay for them, then so be it. And because of this, as much as Cam dies in the end, before he goes—thanks to finally checking into life emotionally—he really lives.