My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Bored easily and more interested in books than writers, I’m a bad completist. But I’ve managed to read almost all of Cormac McCarthy over the years, some of it more than once, give or take a screenplay and with the exception of one novel—Outer Dark (1968)—into whose interior I never cut a path through the verbal thicket on its threshold.[*] As I await the diptych of The Passenger and Stella Maris that might cap his oeuvre later this year, I will use the occasion of his third novel to take stock. No, not the one more violent than the Iliad, which is his fifth novel, his masterpiece, Blood Meridian (1985); nor the one where the simpleton fucks the melon patch, which is his fourth, his other masterpiece, Suttree (1979); nor even the one with the dead babies and cannibals, which is his tenth, his popular and Oprah-crowned success The Road (2006). I aim to analyze the one about the necrophile rapist, if that phrase isn’t, since the dead cannot consent, a redundancy: Child of God (1973).
As my little catalogue of horror shows, McCarthy has a unique reputation for a literary novelist, one more akin to gore-themed image boards or those earlier Faces of Death style VHS compilations of bloody calamity that students used to taunt one another’s stomachs to watch on vodka-sodden nights in the dorm, back in the time when males attended college (and given our morbid and prurient tastes, you begin to see why we were expelled from the ever-more-inclusive premises). The only reason McCarthy might ever have received the Nobel—and it’s no doubt too late now—is that the gentle Swedes probably believe his books to be a faithful documentary record of everyday life in savage America. But we Americans, at least those of us who have ever set foot outside the metropole, can gauge exaggerations and fixations and above all myths for what they are and ask ourselves instead: if the carnage in his books isn’t strict verisimilitude but rather thematic insistence, not the way things are but the way McCarthy demands we see them, then to what end?
First, one Gordian knot needs peremptory cutting rather than patient untangling. McCarthy is not a gnostic or a pessimist or a nihilist or some impossible combination of the three. He is rather a Christian writer, as surely as his precursors Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky ever were. He’s more indiscreet about this commitment in later and lesser works—one reason, I suppose, to be a completist. For example, his self-described “novel in dramatic form” published in 2006, The Sunset Limited, is nearly a sermon. It stars two nameless characters, a black Christian ex-convict and the white atheist professor he’s trying to save from suicide. The overt moral of the drama, rescued from outright didacticism only by McCarthy’s glad hand with the vernacular: if you don’t believe in God you might as well just kill yourself—and, in fact, you probably will.
(I pass over in silence, because it is so obvious, the more-than-Faulknerian racialist romance according to which blackness equals faith and life while whiteness equals intellect and death, a schema hardly updated since antebellum Poe, however McCarthy transvalues those values. While this lauding of black wisdom improves on racial hate, it’s still a stereotype for all that, and may even—but what do I know?—be a patronizing insult in the guise of an exalted compliment. Later critics such as James Baldwin certainly thought so when Harriet Beecher Stowe used roughly the same sentimental gambit in the 19th century, with whatever allowances we need to make for the enormity of her activist task. Faulkner, susceptible to the sentiment himself, still managed to analyze it ruthlessly via the figure of Joanna Burden in Light in August, whose white guilt leads her to see “the black shadow in the shape of a cross.” Did Baldwin himself always escape this trope? Perhaps Christianity demands it. But I digress.)
When read with Christianity in mind, Blood Meridian lights up and most its textual ambiguities dissolve. Of what is the Judge judge? This world, the world of commerce and war, the infinite artifice of violence by which humanity remorselessly fences itself in from nature and God in pursuit of some other, more alien sublime. The Kid’s refusal to kill the Judge when he has the chance, in all its wordless eloquence, recalls Alyosha’s kiss in The Brothers Karamazov: a purely irrational leap-of-faith choice to love despite the coldness and cruelty of the Judge’s world—exactly the gospel Black preaches to White in The Sunset Limited. And in All the Pretty Horses (1992), the same story. John Grady Cole rises above a universe of deathly artifice represented by the horse-breeding hacienda and the hellish prison-yard, fortified only by his instinctive fealty to the Golden Rule and his capacity to feel guilt even for killing a villain in pure self-defense, not to mention his communion with the animal kingdom.
McCarthy wavers from book to book and even within individual books about how much to blame nature for the iniquity he records. Is nature itself party to human evil or even its source? I think of the birds wind-speared and crying on the cholla in All the Pretty Horses, of the gunpowder quarried from the volcano in a Miltonic-Satanic passage of Blood Meridian, and of the trout at the ambiguous end of The Road patterned with “vermiculate…maps of the world in its becoming” like evidence of some primordial wrong or worm in the apple. Indicting nature does place McCarthy closer to gnosticism (for which Creation and Fall were one) than to Christian orthodoxy (for which the Creation is God’s good handiwork) on the spectrum of possible monotheistic orientations. But then his poet-surpassing descriptions of the landscape, Southern or Western, could only come from a thorough Wordsworthian romance with the rocks and stones and trees, not to mention the agrarian nostalgia that marks his germinal work, the elegiac and edenic Orchard Keeper (1965). “Nature or anti-nature” is a genuine and irresolvable ambiguity in his work, but last-ditch salvation through Christian love shines out clearly no matter how gothic or pastoral its setting: “I would say that the thing we are talkin about is Jesus, but it is Jesus understood as that gold at the bottom of the mine,” to cite Black in The Sunset Limited a final time.
The mine goes dark and deep, however, as Child of God proves. A short sharp novel told in fragmentary chapters, Child of God narrates the descent into serial killing and sexual madness of Lester Ballard, a young outcast in mid-20th-century Sevier County, Tennessee. In the opening chapter, an auctioneer dispossesses Ballard of his home and land, which the county is selling off to the highest bidder on the promise that its timber will bring a return. The narrator, mostly a cinematographer but sometimes a theologian, instructs us that Ballard is “[a] child of God much like yourself perhaps,” before this “child” threatens the auctioneer with a rifle. The eponymous phrase will prove at once ironic to the secular reader—what kind of God has a child like this?—and a serious challenge to the Christian one, who is called to love even this.
Ballard, driven deeper and deeper into nature, hedged by a chorus of townspeople who deem him “crazy”—a choral voice tells us early on, “he never was right after his daddy killed hisself”—begins to slake his unsastisfied lust on the corpses of women. The first one he finds dead alongside her lover in the back of a car; for reasons the always elliptical McCarthy never explains, they were somehow taken in flagrante. Ballard hesitates, comically leaving and coming back to the car several times, before he shifts the dead man out of the way and penetrates the dead woman. Then he carries her like a doll back to the house where he’s squatting, goes to town to buy her a pretty red dress and black panties with pink bows, and warms himself with her by the fire.
After this house burns down with the woman’s body in it, Ballard takes to living in a cave. Now habituated to necophilia, he himself murders his lovers and arrays them, along with a row of stuffed animals he won at a county fair, as ornaments in his ghastly domestic parody within the bowels of the earth. The novel mounts to its climax with Ballard’s crazed and attempted revenge on the man who usurped his ancestral property. But the Christian McCarthy never forgets that Ballard is also a human being, never forgets to show him laughing and weeping and playing with birds—even if the reader may at times resent an attitude more sympathetic to the brutal male killer, however outcast and dispossessed, than to his innocent female victims.
McCarthy insists, similarly, on an inhumanity ambient to the setting. In pursuit of Ballard, the novel’s resident lawman asks, in a sentence that won’t please the Sevier County tourist board, “You reckon there are just some places the good lord didn’t intend folks to live in?” What kind of people populate such cursed places? Here, for example, is perhaps Ballard’s closest friend in the novel, a man with a huge family who lives in a dump:
The dumpkeeper had spawned nine daughters and named them out of an old medical dictionary gleaned from the rubbish he picked. These gangling progeny with black hair hanging from their armpits now sat idle and wide-eyed day after day in chairs and crates about the little yard cleared out of the tips while their harried dam called them one by one to help with chores and one by one they shrugged or blinked their sluggard lids. Urethra, Cerebella, Hernia Sue. They moved like cats and like cats in heat attracted surrounding swains to their midden until the old man used to go out at night and fire a shotgun at random just to clear the air.
This is Southern Gothic to the point of self-parody and cruelly narrated to boot. Consider not only the animalizing “spawned” but also the irony with which McCarthy wrenches the word “swain” from its pastoral context. But the dark humor passes to outright horror when the dumpkeeper casually and violently rapes his daughter after running off her suitor. Later, McCarthy lets us glimpse another family, one whose daughter Ballard will claim first with gun and then with phallus. More striking at first, however, is her little brother:
A huge headed bald and slobbering primate that inhabited the lower reaches of the house, familiar of the warped floorboards and the holes tacked up with food tins hammered flat, a consort of roaches and great hairy spiders in their season, perennially benastied and afflicted with a nameless crud.
Ballard gifts this child a robin, and then the child eats the robin’s legs so it can’t get away. The absurdist horror—and again its narrative cruelty—undermines the more serious vision the novel promotes elsewhere, but it also places Ballard in a world on whose continuum he is an extreme but not an aberration. Ballard himself is dissatisfied with the world:
Coming up the mountain through the blue winter twilight among great boulders and the ruins of giant trees prone in the forest he wondered at such upheaval. Disorder in the woods, trees down, new paths needed. Given charge Ballard would have made things more orderly in the woods and in men’s souls.
In this passage we find one clue to the novel’s meaning. As in that other great, grotesque, and Gothic short novel of 1973, Toni Morrison’s Sula, we may be faced with the killer as frustrated artist. Why else does Ballard carefully decorate even his most rudimentary domiciles? Or decorate his victims so deliberately? Or transform himself into the very beauty he attempts to attain?
He’d long been wearing the underclothes of his female victims but now he took to appearing in their outer wear as well. A gothic doll in ill fit clothes, its carmine mouth floating detached and bright in the white landscape.
An extremist Künstlerroman, then, a portrait of the artist as a young ghoul. But the novel’s E.C. Comics imagery leaves it in less exalted company than Joyce and even the magical-realist Morrison, for all that McCarthy shares their modernism. When Ballard begins wearing not only his victims’ clothes but also their skin, we recall that Child of God was released a year before that landmark of exploitation cinema, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both novel and film influenced, McCarthy scholars have speculated, by the case of Ed Gein. Always more aware of cinema than we remember, the screenwriter McCarthy even once prophetically likens Ballard to “some slapstick contrivance of the filmcutter’s art.”
A classic, to be a classic, must answer the differing needs of different eras. If Child of God spoke to the late 20th century’s burgeoning interest in serial killers, it now proffers the prehistory of incel rage. And though this novel has never heard of the internet, McCarthy with genuine insight portrays a heightened species of porn addiction. Ballard goes from masturbating as he spies on a couple having sex to violating a corpse he chances upon. From there he escalates to murder and the collection of bodies, until he finally wears his victims’ skins against his own. This, the reader may conclude, is the inevitable course run when you experience sex entirely as a phantasm, decoupled from the living reality of another person; you will require stronger and stronger stimulus to get off on simulacra until you destroy the very reality to which your fantasy once referred. The socially just critic, on the other hand, will enter Child of God and its lethal autogynephile into the doleful rolls of the “trans killer” trope alongside such cinematic standbys as Psycho, Sleepaway Camp, and The Silence of the Lambs.
In the end, though, Child of God is not a social novel. It returns us rather to McCarthy’s theological preoccupation. An old man in the book resists historicizing its events when a young sheriff’s deputy asks him if people are getting meaner. He replies, “I think people are the same from the day God first made one.” So why did God make his children so coarse and misshapen, so lonely and violent, so perverse and cruel? Despite the uncanny eloquence of his prose, McCarthy as narrator foreshadows his later interest in writing for the screen by hewing mostly to exteriors: action, description, and dialogue. In one scene, however, when Ballard almost drowns while fording a river, this narrator, suddenly chaotic as the raging water, bursts forth with a pent-up cry of theodicy, a Job-like questioning of the Lord:
He could not swim, but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up. Some halt in the way of things seems to work here. See him. You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it. But they want this man’s life. He has heard them in the night seeking him with lanterns and cries of execration. How then is he borne up? Or rather, why will not these waters take him?
To ask is to answer: somehow we want and need the existence of this man. His extremity enlarges the bounds of the possible and therefore testifies to a freedom beyond nature and humanity. As in O’Connor and Dostoevsky, we may have to come to Jesus through sin, down the road of destruction that tempts us like the devil. With the command, “See him,” significantly later repeated as the first sentence of Blood Meridian, McCarthy asks us to own up to this desire, which is the very desire that draws readers to his blood-soaked and vicious novels—and the ungodly desire that alone calls us, when mere politeness and goodness-by-rote would keep us mired in the trivial, to journey all the way down that cave or mine at whose bottom, and perhaps nowhere else, we will find the love of God.
[*] Everything else I’ve written on McCarthy is here. In general, I judge there to be three flat-out masterpieces in succession at the heart of his canon: Suttree, Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses. The rest are mixed. I regret not having written about Suttree, which is completely astonishing, both a universe and a lexicon, but I’d have to read it two or three times before I could say anything useful about it beyond my conviction that its final paragraph—a little manifesto against suicide to rival The Sunset Limited—should adorn a monument in some public square:
Somewhere in the gray wood by the river is the huntsman and in the brooming corn and in the castellated press of the cities. His work lies all wheres and his hounds tire not. I have seen them in a dream, slaverous and wild and their eyes crazed with ravening for souls in this world. Fly them.