Child of God

Any self-professed black belt in Cormac McCarthy had better demonstrate his prowess by answering some tough-ass questions. Like why doesn’t Chigurh die a bloody, pulpy mess when he’s broadsided in the intersection? Why the bizarre, ambiguous encounter between the Judge and the kid in the outhouse? And how in the world are we like Lester Ballard, a back-asswards, homicidal necrophiliac with rotting Mountain Dew mouth? Difficult questions, these. And I’ll save the first two for another day. For my eyes are on Ballard, Lester Ballard…

He is small, unclean, unshaven. He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps.

I am many things, but I am no murderer. And I don’t sleep with dead people, either. We have our faults, you and I, but we’re not howling with psychopathy. So how are we like him? It’s a fair question. And the answer lies in McCarthy’s exquisite characterization of Ballard. Especially as it pertains to his final revelation. There are four key episodes in Child of God that constitute a single trajectory of increasing awareness for Ballard: (1) his weeping with the advent of spring, (2) his intimation of mortality, (3) his perception of himself in the child, and (4) his realization that he “belongs” in the hospital. Importantly, (3) and (4) occur after Ballard is delivered from the womb of the Earth, a profoundly symbolic second birth. Having given the men who freed him from the hospital the slip in the caves, Ballard emerges in the field and walks to the road and sees himself in another, for the first time, and returns to the hospital and says, “I’m supposed to be here.” McCarthy’s description of Ballard is stunning:

A weedshaped onearmed human swaddled up in outsized overalls and covered all over with red mud.

“Swaddled” like a baby, innocent. “Covered with red mud” like vaginal blood from birth. But most important, “human.” This is the first time McCarthy describes the humanity of Ballard. Gone are the “simian apes,” the “gnomes” and “troglodytes,” gone are the “demons” and assorted images of feral rage. Ballard’s life is a series of expulsions. His mom expels him by leaving the family. His dad expels him by killing himself. And the community expels him by taking his land and pushing him to the edge of survival. His need to belong is so strong that it can only be satisfied perversely. Through voyeurism, stuffed animals, and sex with dead bodies. Like all children of God, Ballard desperately wants to belong, to be part of the human community. Even if it’s as a ward of the state.

4 Responses to Child of God

  1. Boy, was this one tough to read. And tough to not read – McCarthy was writing with a straight-razor. The prose is sharp.

    I think I prefer revisiting the book through you than actually rereading it.

  2. R. T. says:

    A number of years ago a colleague told me that CHILD OF GOD was “must reading” for me; the colleague had some vague notion of my idiosyncratic reading tastes, and he was convinced that McCarthy would satisfy those tastes. I quickly went out an bought the book, put it on my “must read” stack, and then allowed myself to be distracted by other demands upon my time. Then, when BLOOD MERIDIAN was published, the same colleague sang its praises; I quickly acquired and read that book, which was an experience that left me gasping, reeling, and staggering. That disorienting (but perversely exhilarating) experience was repeated when I read THE ROAD. Now, CHILD OF GOD remains on my bookshelf, and I am wary of it. Your superb posting reminds me that I have good cause to be so cautious. Perhaps, though, I have postponed the experience for too long. Perhaps I should now give myself over once again to McCarthy’s black magic.

    • Kevin Neilson says:

      I definitely think it’s worth reading. On my first pass, I thought McCarthy had failed his readers in a fundamental way, by creating an expectation that he couldn’t satisfy. But on my second and subsequent passes, I corrected course and now believe that Child of God is one of the finest pieces he wrote, with the exception of a few annoying mannerisms, etc. Let me know if you decide to give it a gander. Best.

  3. [...] has a profound and entertaining relationship with a dead body. Don’t think Lester Ballard in Child of God. No, don’t think that, for although B.D. may be a petty criminal, a homicidal necrophiliac [...]

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