Thursday, April 9, 2009

Child of God

McCarthy’s early novels are not merely violent; they are almost gaudily so. They trade in necrophilia, perversion, and baby murder, and reading them one is struck repeatedly by the way he displays the bloody-minded glee of the horror writer, the gross-out artist.
—Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends

In an earlier
post, I tried to understand Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian by comparing it to other works of literature—Huck Finn, On the Road, Waiting for Godot, etc.

McCarthy’s novel
Child of God is like The Andy Griffith Show mixed with Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, with dashes of The Stranger and Lars and the Real Girl (if the sex doll were, instead, a murdered corpse).

This short novel, less ambitious than
Suttree or Blood Meridian, is a fast and gorgeous read nonetheless. There’s a great scene at a county fair shooting gallery when Ballard, a crack shot, wins some stuffed animals, which he pathetically carries with him throughout much of the novel. In another great scene, a smith tries to teach Ballard how to beat an axehead sharp. He shows him how to heat the metal properly, the different colors of flame to use at various stages, where to hammer and how to temper it when finished. This arcane yet fascinating tutorial goes on for several pages, at the end of which the smith asks Lester, “Reckon you could do it now from watchin?”

“Do what,” Ballard asks flatly. 

As a teacher, I found this painfully funny moment all too familiar.

“Some people you can’t do nothin with,” the high sheriff of Sevier County says late in the novel, speaking of those who have been looting during a flood of Biblical proportions. It’s a tempting philosophy, probably even more so for a sheriff than for a teacher. In telling the story of Lester Ballard, the alienated young man who becomes a murderous cave-dwelling necrophile, the novel implicitly asks us if we agree. There’s not much to like about Ballard, yet he is “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” His troubled life puts the novel’s title to the test. Is it bitter irony, pure and simple? Or is it a challenge to find something divine even in the most reprehensible example of humanity? Or, conversely, to see Ballard’s meanness as merely one end of a spectrum of behavior that, unfortunately, is all too human? 

And to what extent has the meanness of Ballard’s community helped produce his own? There's no Aunt Bea here, no Andy Taylor to dispense small-town wisdom and compassion. Back in 1899, says one old-timer, there was a sheriff named Tom Davis, who stood up to the White Caps, a group of vigilantes gone wild. But in the present time of the novel, the most dignified character we see is probably the smith, who takes the time to do his job right and to show Ballard how it's done. In a sense, his pride in his craft (he tells Ballard, "It's like a lot of things....Do the least part of it wrong and ye'd just as well to do it all wrong.") seems a kind of metaphor for McCarthy's own writerly ethic. As for everybody else in the community, they're a rough bunch that has never liked Ballard or any of his ancestors. "I never knew such a place for meanness," says one townsperson.

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