Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cormac McCarthy - Child of God

As far as Cormac McCarthy goes, I’ve always found it odd that the man somehow stumbled onto Oprah’s coveted list of Live Your Best Life! endorsements. No knock against Her Majesty of course (“she’s picked some good books,” as Jonathan Frazen emphatically asserts) but I’ve never had my thumb in the middle of a McCarthy novel and, say, looked up to smile at someone on the street, or started whistling ‘What a Wonderful World.’ If anything, McCarthy’s work repeatedly reminds me of just how terrifying human beings can be to each other, our unsettling excellence at violence, at subjugation, at destroying everything until living your best life is next to impossible.

I mean, she caught the part with the de-limbed guy strapped onto a mattress, right? She knows why the cannibals were keeping him alive?

In other words, to read McCarthy is to be wide awake in the middle of a nightmare and when I went back to Child of God a few weeks ago, I was reminded at just how horrifically precise that nightmare can be with him.

Lester Ballard, the novel’s deviant and surprisingly young antagonist lurks aimlessly through the Smokey mountain foothills of Sevier County, Tennessee. As a marginalized member of the community, Ballard has little to show for himself; no folks, no house, no job or money. The closest he comes to friendship is with an incestuous junkyard owner. The only people that really pay any attention to him are the cops.

Each chapter gives us another glimpse at Ballard’s hopeless day-to-day struggles. None can be called ‘funny’ really, but there is a streak of dark comedy to those misadventures with bill collectors, carnival hucksters and general store managers – moments where Ballard gets dangerously close to resembling an everyman.

Which is a nauseating thought in hindsight. After all, Ballard is a sadistic killer. I know he’s a sadistic killer. Yet, what makes Child of God more than just two-dimensional slasher bilge, is Ballard’s nuanced transformation from petty criminal to sadistic killer, how he’s still compelling to watch even after he becomes so uniformly destructive. Part of this has to be chalked up to the sheer spectacle of his grotesque behavior. But there’s a genuine complexity to him as well. Something that, if not empathetic is still eerily familiar.

McCarthy refrains from offering us an answer to the deranged mind of his anti-hero. Which never seemed to be part of the plan, anyway. Instead, if the novel tells us anything it’s that the most frightening monster is a believable one as opposed to some fabulist creation. Hockey masks and machetes are one thing, but a depraved and inhuman fiend who I can vaguely recognize as someone I’ve seen before is an altogether new nightmare.

So, you know, kudos to McCarthy for tricking me into feeling for Leather-Face.



  1. "She knows why the cannibals were keeping him alive?"

    I thought it was so his meat did not rot (similar to the snake bit horse in mcCarthys Blood Meridian) but you seem to suggest it for a less practical and more devious purpose. Is there something I missed?

  2. this is one of those book that you start and you can stop to read, in only one night I readed the half, is amazing how a simple book can trap you in this kind of dream.