Novels have the potential to transport readers into worlds unfamiliar, strange, and occasionally grotesque. Human motivations, deprivations, desires, and digressions are unearthed, examined, and lead readers to question that which we do not understand. So it is with Cormac McCarthy’s (1973) Child of God: an utterly disturbing novel that, despite its gratuitous physical, sexual, and psychological violence, left me silenced with questions.
How to account for Ballard’s behavior – is it purely psychological, environmental, circumstantial, tied to his father’s suicide, or multiply motivated? Perhaps it is tied to the stars, as suggested in a passing line: “A malign star kept him” (p. 41). Are we to empathize with the dismembering of his body as conduit for scientific discovery at the end of the novel, the way we empathize with the victims of his ravenous, murderous rages throughout? How about the way he is discarded so haphazardly, almost like rubbish? Do his actions throughout the novel warrant such dismissal in death? What is the narrator’s (John) relationship to Ballard; how is this story being told? And perhaps the most perplexing question: what message(s) about everyday life was McCarthy sending to readers?
The Practice and Survival of Everyday Life
What most struck me in reading this novel was not the violence, which is perhaps what often gets most discussed with McCarthy, but rather how I was drawn to McCarthy’s portrayal of the practices of everyday life in rural Tennessee in the 1950s. Despite the unease associated with murders and missing women, life in this rural Tennessee county seems to go on almost unabated. In this county people are just attempting to survive, which in an odd and troubling way is also what Ballard is attempting to do throughout the novel.
The narrative style of the book is such that McCarthy confronts the reader with tremendously impactful moments of narrative and plots, followed almost immediately with some level of the mundane. In the beginning of the novel we meet Reubel, the dumpkeeper, who supposedly keeps company with Ballard. After a violent scene in which he rapes his own daughter, McCarthy turns in the next chapter to the story of some rather slovenly and pernicious cattle who conspire to take revenge on their owner.
There are other moments like this throughout the novel. The county floods in a relentless spring rain, and McCarthy paints residents as just trying to salvage goods from their stores and homes. A man named Gresham loses his wife unexpectedly and, not knowing how to grieve, just sings the “chickenshit blues” (p. 22). There is throughout the book wonderful use of dialect and geographic slang, as well.
What I most enjoyed about this book was McCarthy’s ability to create in my imagination incredible visual imagery. Something about his control of language and his ability to paint mental pictures with carefully constructed sentences and word choice struck me from the very beginning of the novel.
On the second page of the book, McCarthy is describing the scene of a land and farm auction: “Wasps pass through the laddered light from the barnslats in a succession of strobic moments, gold and trembling between black and black” (p. 4). If you close your eyes, you can envision rays of sun, cut and streaming through barn slats, and can envision the busyness of the wasps as they go about their daily tasks.
Here is another, which takes place as Ballard stands in the depths of a deserted rock quarry: “The great rock walls with their cannelured faces and featherdrill holes composed about him an enormous amphitheater” (p. 38). My marginalia read “I love the imagery of the book here – the enormity of feeling so small in a quarry.” It led me to wonder how small and unimportant Ballard felt; whether this translated into the unimportance he gave to human life throughout the book. But it also demonstrated to me how violent humans are toward the earth. Sure, this quarry made Ballard feel as if he were an actor in a great stage, and yet it left me wondering, what is McCarthy suggesting? Is quarrying the earth the rape of nature? Have we discarded the land in the same ways Ballard discards the women he kills and rapes?
Here is how McCarthy describes fireworks: “sprays of lit glycerine flaring across the night, trailing down the sky is loosely falling ribbons of hot spectra soon burnt to naught” (p. 65). He is also attuned to describing the passing of seasons. For fall, he describes how “the hardwood trees on the mountain subsided into yellow and flame and to ultimate nakedness” (p. 40). For spring, an even more complete and intriguing image:
In the spring or warmer weather when the snow thaws in the woods the tracks of winter reappear on slender pedestals and the snow reveals in palimpsest old buried wanderings, struggles, scenes of death. Tales of winter brought to light again like time turned back upon itself. (p. 138)
He even describes a feeling commonly felt by northerners or those in colder climates: “false spring came again with a warm wind” (p. 141).
Philosophical Inquiries and Notions of Empathy
There are moments in the novel where a reader may feel drawn to see Ballard’s humanity and almost empathize with his character. Despite his seemingly inhuman and violent actions, he has moments we likely all have. For example, one night he is looking at the stars: “he watched the hordes of cold stars sprawled across the smokehole and wondered what stuff they were made of, or himself” (p. 141). Like many of us, Ballard is engaged in a philosophical inquiry about creation – who are we; why are we here?
In another moment, which almost clearly signals that Ballard has some kind of multiple personality or other psychological disorder, the narrator states that “Whatever voice spoke to him was no demon but some old shed self that came yet from time to time in the name of sanity, a hand to gentle him back from the rim of his disastrous wrath” (p. 158). Not long after in narrative time, Ballard sits atop a lookout watching the Tennessee valley come to life in the early spring. “Squatting there he let his head drop between his knees and he began to cry” (p. 170).
Child of God?
While religious imagery and parallels are not my forte, we are left with the question of why this book is called Child of God. While there are references throughout the book to Ballard being descended from Adam, the invocation of Ballard being almost entombed in a cave near the end of the novel, and of course the figure of 7 bodies in the last pages of the text, one must question McCarthy’s larger questions with the novel. If Ballard is a “child of God,” then what do we do with him? Are any of us who might envision ourselves as “children of God” far off from potentially being or becoming Ballard? Or is McCarthy making some larger statement – perhaps that “God” is violent, rapturous, contemptuous, even mad? What about John, the narrator and supposed buyer of Ballard’s old farm auctioned at the beginning of the novel? Is John simply a common name, or is there invocation to the apostle John?
The book is, undoubtedly, deeply troubling, violent, and raw. McCarthy paints in Ballard a man distraught with loneliness, without a home, an occupation, love, or many friends. He is a violent man, not only to others, but also to himself. He is a rapist, a racist, and a misogynist. And like any great novel, McCarthy’s adeptness at crafting the story leaves one with greater insight into the human condition and the perplexing questions of motivation, desire, and behavior.
Join the Brazos Book Club Discussion
This summer, Brazos Book Club is reading three novels by McCarthy. Child of God represents an early career novel. Join us for a discussion of this novel on Wednesday, June 21 at 7PM at Brazos Bookstore, Houston.
McCarthy, C. (1973). Child of god. New York, NY: Vintage.
Where on earth did you get the idea that there was a narrator named John?