Cormac McCarthy’s Child Of God

It has been many years since I last read a Cormac McCarthy novel. Blood Meridian was a high school favourite, now very much overdue for a re-reading, and The Road supplied an exciting summer read in college, but it seems, in the intervening years, I had forgotten McCarthy’s power to shock and unnerve. Child Of God, about a disturbed young man’s descent into depravity in the Tennessee hills during the 1960s, provided a powerful reminder. Our protagonist is Lester Ballard, whom we first encounter as he watches, from a distance, while his only home is auctioned from underneath him. He is “a child of God much like yourself perhaps,” McCarthy tells us, and we’ll keep that description in mind, over the next hundred pages, as Lester stalks, murders, and engages in repeated sexual acts with corpses. A child of god, perhaps – but like us?

Very early on, we feel pity for Ballard, connected with our attempts to understand him. We sense that there is something hideously wrong with him – some affliction of the psyche – but McCarthy’s third-person narration keeps us at a distance. Dispossessed, homeless, Ballard takes what meagre belongings he has into a remote hunting cabin, which becomes a kind of hunter’s lair as he stalks the Tennessee hills like some kind of predator. His first transgression comes at his discovery of a young couple having sex on the hood of a car; Ballard masturbates while he watches. As if to curtail our revulsion, the very next page offers us a reason to pity Ballard, despite his voyeurism:

I don’t know. They say he was never right after his daddy killed hisself. They was just the one boy. The mother had run off, I don’t know where to nor who with. Me and Cecil Edwards was the ones cut him down. He come in the store and told it like you’d tell it was rainin out. We went up there and walked in the barn and I seen his feet hangin. We just cut him down, let him fall in the floor. Just like cuttin down meat. He stood there and watched, never said nothin. He was about none or ten years old at the time. The old man’s eyes was run out on stems like a crawfish and his tongue blacker’n a chow dog’s. I wisht if a man wanted to hang hisself he’d do it with poison or somethin so folks wouldn’t have to see such a thing as that.

Abandoned by his mother at a young age, the young Lester has the double-misfortune of having to see his father hung from the rafters, his eyes “run out on stems like a crawfish and his tongue blacker’n a chow dog’s” – not a very auspicious start for a life. The turning point in Lester’s transformation from peeping tom to necrophiliac comes when he discovers a woman passed out beneath a tree wearing only her nightgown and the pungent smell of whiskey. He cannot resist touching her, at which point she wakes up and chases him off with a rock. However, when the sheriffs come for him later in the day, he discovers she has falsely accused him of raping her – completing Lester’s sense of betrayal by society.

One marker of Lester’s growing alienation is provided by the various shelters he takes up. When we first meet him, he is being evicted from his own home; from there, he takes lodging in a remote hunting cabin – on the boundary between the wilderness and civilization, but nonetheless a distinctly human dwelling. However, shortly after debasing himself with necrophilia, he accidentally burns down his own cabin – his last, fragile link to civilization. With nowhere else to go, he retreats to the deepest caves of the Tennessee hillsides, severing entirely his attachment to human society. Something must also be said for McCarthy’s prose, which manages the difficult feat of describing these horrors without either rendering them banal or excessively lurid. The cadence and diction are often biblical, the sentences fatalistic, menacing:

The hardwood trees on the mountain subsided into yellow and flame and to ultimate nakedness. An early winter fell, a cold wind sucked among the black and barren branches. Alone in the empty shell of a house the squatter watched through the moteblown glass a rimshard of bonecolored moon come cradling up over the black balsams on the ridge, ink trees a facile hand had sketched against the paler dark of winter heavens.

A man much for himself. Drinkers gone to Kirby’s would see him on the road by night, slouched and solitary, the rifle hanging in his hand as if it were a thing he could not get shut of.

He’d grown lean and bitter.

Some said mad.

A malign star kept him.

The rifle and the malign star belong to Ballard, things he cannot “get shut of.” There seems to be precious little room for free will, and therefore no real chance at redemption. McCarthy presents us with another intriguing metaphor when Ballard visits a blacksmith, who hones Ballard’s axe edge to a deadly sharpness. The smith, talkative even in the face of Ballard’s silences, explains every step of his craft, in terms pregnant with meaning (“Some people will poke around at somethin else and leave the tool they’re heatin to perdition but the proper thing is to fetch her out the minute she shows the color of grace”). When he finishes, he sums up his work: “It’s like a lot of things, said the smith. Do the least part of it wrong and ye’d just as well to do it all wrong.” One thinks of Macbeth’s rationalization: “I am in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” But is Ballard the blacksmith, in control of his own actions, or is he the axe, whose wrong beginnings might be fatally commingled with his very nature?

It is nothing less than the nature and problem of evil that McCarthy wrestles with in Child Of God, and if the novel resists easy interpretation, it nonetheless leaves open – in fleeting moments – the possibility of redemption, even for a Lester Ballard.