Thursday, February 6, 2014

Child Of God

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy. Originally published by Random House, 1973. Approx. 208 pages.

I've been lounging about in the worlds of fantasy and sci-fi far too long recently, and have become remiss in reading some, well, "normal stuff". So when I saw recently that James Franco has helmed a film adaptation of one of Cormac McCarthy's earlier works, I decided to give it a read. I will go on record and say that I am a huge McCarthy fan, and I regard him as not "among" the best living writers of our time, but indeed as our greatest living literary treasure. First, a look at the preview for Franco's take, and then, let's look at the book itself:

This Scott Haze gentleman, just on appearance alone, epitomizes Ballard's appearance.

Child of God is Cormac's third published novel, originally released four decades ago. It focuses on one Lester Ballard, a social outcast roaming the mountains around Sevier County, Tennessee. There is something off, something wrong about Ballard, on this everyone can agree. But there is the one line from the beginning that describes him so well, and serves as the moral lesson throughout the work:

"A child of God much like yourself perhaps."

When we first meet Ballard, he is trying to make a stand as the county prepares to auction off his family's last possession, his property. His father had committed suicide a whiles back, and the already ill-adjusted Ballard was left to his own means. He possesses the most basic of survival skills, and absolutely no social graces. And so, now homeless, he takes up squatting in someone's vacation cabin, maintaining a basic sustenance, and casting lewd remarks at local women. He is almost always seen with his most prized belonging, his trusty rifle, and it can be said that his one true skill is in his marksmanship. He also satisfies his internal inadequacies by watching others in the act of copulation and pretending to shoot those people and animals he despises with said rifle.

A turning point in the novel occurs after Ballard is briefly jailed on an unfounded rape charge. Not long after, he comes upon a car on the road containing the bodies of a young couple that died in the middle of intercourse (carbon monoxide poisoning maybe?). Perhaps realizing with a stark urgency that his desires will remain forever unrequited, he gratifies himself with the female corpse. He then brings her home, and.... I don't know, tries to approximate an imitation of a relationship. He cares for her like any of his other trophies (his rifle which he maintains immaculately, some stuffed animals he won in a shooting game at a fair), and he also, well, continues to consummate this relationship. However, one night his new found love is lost when the cabin goes up in flames, and he becomes a literal mountain recluse, living in a cave. He also sets about replacing his lost love, and then escalates to collecting corpses like trophies, like his stuffed animals.

This may seem a little spoiler-y, but trust me, it really isn't. Any search on this work will tell you that necrophilia is a central theme of the story, and I won't get into the ending or Ballard's ultimate fate.

The real treat in Child of God is, of course, McCarthy's masterful prose. We are treated to his traditional stream-of-consciousness style, bereft of such hindrances as quotation marks and with run-on sentences scattered throughout. The earlier portions feature first person accounts, testimonials supporting just how "off" Ballard is. Always one to create his worlds seemingly brick by brick, McCarthy paints 1960's Tennessee with colorful descriptions and poetic metaphors. Also always remember that the same attention is paid to descriptions of harsh brutality as well. 

The characters in Child of God follow familiar McCarthy tropes as well: Ballard himself is the destructive force of nature, emboldened with a distinct set of values, cutting a swathe across the landscape (like Judge Holden in Blood Meridian or Chigurh in No Country for Old Men). Sheriff Fate represents the voice of judicious reason, a complete fish out of water in a world where moral depravity seems to be the more and more accepted norm (like Sheriff Bell in No Country). There is mention of a bigger, badder lawman in the area's history (like Bell's father), and there is a prophetic old timer reminding us that these wrongs have been around since Adam was around (the prophetic of man in The Road).

This following part is a bit of an analysis and may have some spoilers in it:

Some might say that McCarthy has crafted in Lester Ballard a character who is just as sympathetic as he is repulsive. In a way, this is true but looking at him, do we feel more sympathy, or pity? I think McCarthy dares us to pity Ballard. Pity his inherently miserable experience. For the irony is that once we pity something, we assume a position on a plateau above that which we pity. And that conceit is what makes us uglier than what we leer upon. Ballard does despicable things, but he has an incredibly strong, linear logic. McCarthy points out that this logic is on par with a local child who is an imbecile, but it is still there.

This is not to say that this is Cormac's best work. Some of the descriptions go on unnecessarily, and some of the gory bits are a bit overblown for shock value. It's obvious that the reason is this being an earlier work, over the years he has done well to refine his style to make the horrors and violence brutal, yet believable. And inescapable. Like the horrors in our very souls.

The point is, Ballard is not there for us to wrestle with sympathy or revulsion over. He is there to serve as a counterbalance. He is there to show up all the self-righteous folk for the hypocrites that they are.

For example:

Ballard is falsely accused of rape. Some boys did in fact rape the accuser.
Ballard did have sex with dead women. But he never raped a live one (how I'm guessing his logic works).
Ballard did have sex with dead women, but the dumpkeeper had no reservation about forcing himself on one of his own daughters (and probably more, as he had nine of them).
Ballard squatted and stole enough food to get by. The townsfolk had no problem ripping him off in barters and also stole expensive items during a flood. In fact, the townsfolk had no issue with auctioning off the only thing he owned at the beginning of the book, even making an event of it with musicians and concession stands.
Ballard stole all the possessions off of the dead he came across or killed. But when he stole, they didn't need it anymore (twisted logic).
Ballard killed to make more trophies. The townsfolk had no qualms attempting to lynch him.

See, no matter how much one points the accusing finger, it always ends up aiming back at ourselves. This is not to say that Ballard is a hero, but only the most extreme villain. But he is no monster, just the perennial outsider, mocked, ignored, loathed.

And still a child of God.

Here's what it is:
One of legendary author Cormac McCarthy's works serves as a study of the spiritual degeneration of a social pariah, and asks whether monsters are born or made.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Not much to be said regarding this cover. Green grass and a fade to black, with the lettering standing out in bold white. If I were looking to buy this new, I'd wait for a movie tie-in version.

Cover Final Score:


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