Review by Drew Ninnis.
Plot: Untamed, wilful Lester Ballard is thrown off his family’s East Tennesse farm after it is repossessed by the bank. Moving into a draughty cabin in the woods, Lester engages in small acts of vengeance and terrorism on the community and its surrounding wilds – becoming a thorn in the side of the local sheriff. As Lester loses more and more of his former life, he sinks further into alienation and desperate acts – culminating in a series of grim events which seal his fate.
Verdict: One of McCarthy’s finest books, and worthy of a close read, but enjoyable as well. The black humour and depravity won’t appeal to some, but will delight most readers. Avoid the James Franco adaptation at all costs.
Review: Cormac McCarthy is a great American author, and if not for the Swedish Academy’s prejudice against the writers of the diverse but unique United States experience, he would be a Nobel Prize winner. Mentioned on almost every speculator’s short list year after year, but yet to be nominated, McCarthy is an author that must not be missed if you are reading your way through the great voices of the 20th century. Having read every novel, script, and short story published by McCarthy I find him one of the few authors with a body of work that can be read from start to finish without growing tired or needing a break. This is partly because the quality of the work is so high, but also because each of his novels represents an experiment with a different type of story telling and theme, yet giving the reader great pleasure in watching his strengths as a writer develop and grow from one work to the next. The poetry of his writing is crisp, beautiful, and indelible, frequently complicated and steeped in obscure historical anecdote – yet each work remains readable and thrilling.
McCarthy’s novels could be divided into two broad categories – the personal and the apocalyptic. The personal works are a showcase for all of the wild anecdotes McCarthy has absorbed over the decades from old men on southern stoops, chewing the fat over the close of another day. These works are tied to the landscape, and tied to an experience of lost fringes or the strange occurrences of country towns and characters. One gets the feeling that McCarthy hasn’t just recounted these stories but has lived them – particularly in the case of the semi-autobiographical Suttree, but even in The Orchard Keeper or his Border Trilogy. Then there is the apocalyptic; these are tales that McCarthy tells of the violence of men and the blood of history, they are also steeped in what one interprets as McCarthy’s experiences but instead pierce the dark potentialities he must have glimpsed within them. Violence is a constant in McCarthy’s work, but in texts like All the Pretty Horses or Suttree it comes as a natural confrontation between ways of living. In Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men the violence more often than not coalesces through an inhuman figure like the Judge or Anton Chigurh, which seem to indicate an unstoppable force beyond the grasp of men. In an interview with the New York Times, McCarthy famously stated that either way, the great writers ‘deal with issues of life and death.’
Although Child of God is only the third book of Cormac McCarthy’s ten published novels, on re-reading it seems like a fulcrum or a turning point between these two categories of the personal and apocalyptic. It traces the story of Lester Ballard, beginning at the point where he loses everything. A wave of people descends on Lester’s property like a ravenous carnival, the local town turning out for the bank’s auction of his property. Lester cowers in the barn, and ‘behind him there is a rope hanging from the loft’ which only becomes ominous much later in the novel, when we learn from another anecdote that his father hanged himself. Disrupting the auction, we realise that this is his last stand for what’s his; and it ends abruptly. We’re told ‘Lester Ballard never could hold his head right after that.’
From that point onwards, Lester leads a shadow existence – moving into someone else’s deserted cabin in the woods, which he manages to burn down, with only his rifle and the clothes on his back as possessions. Although it is clear that before the book began Lester wasn’t thought of highly – one character remarks ‘He’s crazy, C B’ – it isn’t clear whether or not Lester’s increasingly erratic behaviour has been a constant bother to the locals, or whether the auction was the last straw. Either way, Lester as local pest becomes progressively worse – moving from stealing chickens from his former property, to plotting to kill the new owner, to much worse. The novel is soaked in references to spit and semen; Lester lives a life that by necessity is close those visceral realities we try to remove ourselves from, but his desire for the basics of life is no less diminished. His capacity to realise them is; leading to grimly horrific scenes, like the discovery of an abandoned car with two occupants who are no longer among the living. The narrative would be hard to take if it weren’t so comically perfect, and the language so striking on occasions when the sublime is found in the sewer:
Long before morning the house that had kept Ballard from the elements was only a blackened chimney with a pile of smoldering boards at its feet. Ballard crossed the soggy ground and climbed onto the hearth and sat there like an owl. For the warmth of it. He’d long been given to talking to himself but he didn’t say a word.
There is violence and depravity in Child of God, but it would be a mistake to think that it exists within the narrative simply for its own sake or to shock, like a Bret Easton Ellis novel. It would be easy to view the dispassionate narration of the three parts as an invitation to pass judgement on Lester; but this is a sterile reading, as Lester is an intentionally unforgivable figure who, before the novel’s end, has run the spectrum of human crimes. ‘What’s your plans now?’ the local Sheriff inquires, once Lester is released from custody for a rape he didn’t commit ‘What sort of meanness have you got laid out for next.’
But Lester Ballard is ‘a child of God much like yourself perhaps’ and the broader critique of the novel is aimed subtly, wryly at the very voices which recount Lester’s tale – their bemused one-upmanship when they recount tales from way back when. Lester is a mythical figure; almost a composite based on many different myths or stories heard or half heard from someone who used to know someone who used to know. On such loose foundations are the bonds of identity formed, and no element is more exploited for these purposes than the tale of the outsider terrorising the hens in the chicken coop. Within those tales, little thought is given to the creature who is Lester and how he arrived at such a juncture. Lester is deprived of the agrarian grounds of his southern identity; but even this loss is recouped in the unending narrative and mythology of the community and its surrounds.
Child of God asks how far one can be alienated from human affection, or divine forgiveness, before one becomes irredeemable. In doing so, it relies on an important motif that McCarthy redeploys in his later writings; of man loosed from his bonds, the wild, cave-dwelling creature shorn of its identity. But the humanism of McCarthy’s early novels has not yet disappeared; man is not beyond redemption, and the grim inhuman figures of his later novels are yet to appear. As final lines of the novel make clear, Lester may not have been treated well, but ultimately he is accorded what remnants of dignity still remain with the human race.