Cormac McCarthy is a master of cryptic endings. And if ever a novel had a sphinx-like epilogue, it’s Blood Meridian, which, if your ears are attuned to the musicality of McCarthy’s prose, is a kind of inverted Ninth Symphony. An ode to violence, as it were. A parable about existence, about life, about leading and following, about authorship and reading, in a word, about everything, McCarthy’s epilogue surpasses, in my opinion, Plato’s allegory of the cave. Carriers of light, a recurrent theme in his fiction, are solitary beings. They can be “good” people, moral exemplars, or effective leaders. Or they can be literary artists like Homer and Cervantes, or Robinson and McCarthy. What these fire-producers and spark-throwers have in common is the cold unregenerate darkness from which they issue and the wake they leave in their train, as others struggle to comprehend the meaning of their efforts in a silent world. Just as we struggle to comprehend McCarthy’s novel. Which after all is a piece of life, scary, ambiguous, and implacable. In McCarthy’s universe, if ever there’s truth, beauty, and justice — which are hard-won achievements, indeed — they occur on the granite-like surface of selfishness, greed, and violence. Perhaps that’s the import of the epilogue: a solitary man, any man, everyman, struggling in a dry, inhospitable land to forge a path or create a space for others to follow or occupy, if only gropingly.
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.
During a recent re-read of The Road, I was struck by a theme that, on previous readings, had simply been overwhelmed by McCarthy’s evocation of a blasted landscape, in much the same way that an inconspicuous note gets lost in Megadeth’s “Symphony of Destruction.” I’m talking about the gift of death. And I don’t mean this in a sloppy-seconds Derridean kind of way. No, I mean a practical, real-world advantage is won through death. During their blind pilgrimmage, the man routinely thwarts the boy’s desire to belong with others, first a little puppy (which his dad says avoid), then another little boy (which his dad says avoid), and lastly other people, in various states of need, want, and degradation (which his dad says avoid, as they’re potential cannibals). Living on the edge of survial, the man is simply unwilling to risk his son’s life in a world fraught with danger and menace. But once the man dies, the boy has no choice. He has to risk his life, and in doing so, he gains community with others. In that sense, the man’s death, although painful, is a gift to the boy outright.