McCarthy: Child of God

January 12, 2023

Child of God
Cormac McCarthy
(Vintage, 1993) [1973]
197 p.

They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.

So begins this harrowing tale of a loner turned killer in rural Tennessee. Lester Ballard is poor, homeless, without a family, and incapable, it seems, of living in society.

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.

He roams the countryside, scavenging, bedding down in abandoned out-buildings, treasuring his rifle and not much else. He might be crazy. When, one fateful day, he discovers two lovers dead in their car on a deserted road, he does something that removes all doubt, and the novel, which was already sombre and crepuscular, takes a hurtling plunge into the dark.

So dark and depraved does it become that this reader, at least, began to wonder what the point was. I expect McCarthy’s books to be violent and disturbing, but in later novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road there is always a glimmer of light around the edge, a crack through white a hint of redemption or justice might be glimpsed. That glimmer is harder to find here. What is McCarthy up to? Is a portrait of evil enough? Are we to feel compassion for this man? Hatred? Should we long for justice, for him and those whom he harms? I think it’s possible, as readers, to answer all of these questions in the affirmative, but how the book itself answers them is sometimes murky. The title, maybe, gives us a hint.

Certainly one good reason to read the book, despite its difficulties, is the rough allure of its prose. Muted, laced with idiomatic colour, severe, and sometimes starkly beautiful, his voice is one of a kind. Look again at that opening sentence above. It’s quite long, and has a meandering feel, but it functions something like a cinematic image: we see first the wide shot, with a row of vehicles coming up, and then we’re focused on the back of the truck, and then an individual man, and finally an individual face. We get a sense of motion, both back and forth, as they rock over the ruts, and also forward and in. And then there is the alliteration: caravan and carnival, teetering and tuning, guitar and grinning, fiddlepeg and face. And the touches of poetry: “swales of broomstraw”. I read that sentence, set the book in my lap, and smiled, happy to be in the hands of a master again.

To take another example, consider this passage in which Lester is lost inside a cave:

Ballard lay listening in the dark but the only sound he heard was his heart. In the morning when the light in the fissure dimly marked him out this drowsing captive looked so inculpate in the fastness of his hollow stone you might have said he was half right who thought himself so grievous a case against the gods.

Again, we have a sentence that keeps going where another author might have split it up, more tidy-like. There’s a striking visual image of Lester lying on the rock, like a figure sketched in chiaroscuro, and a blending of the narrator’s voice, I think, with Lester’s own, a hint of which comes through in the last phrase. It has a stern beauty. The book is full of things like this.

It is not full, though, of quotation marks.

5 Responses to “McCarthy: Child of God”

  1. Janet Says:

    I have read other books without quotation marks occasionally, and I wonder if McCarthy started that trend. He can get away with it. Others, not so much. He is the master if words. They bend and bow and do his bidding, and that is why I read him, even though he devastates me.

    I started to listen to The Passenger in early December, and thought, “Nope. Not going to do this in Advent.” Also, even though I own the audiobook, I have the book on hold at the library. When I listen to books like this, they go straight to my soul. Reading the words is a kind of barrier.


    • Rob G Says:

      I read The Passenger during Advent and felt the same way at first, but was pleased to discover that the vulgarity/profanity with which the book opens is largely confined to one character, and that the rest of it is not really like that at all, except when that particular character appears.

      I grew to like the book very much, and am now waiting for Stella Maris, the companion novel, to arrive at my library. If it’s good as well I will probably read The Passenger again.

      • cburrell Says:

        I received both of the new novels as Christmas gifts. I’m about 1/3 into “The Passenger” now, and finding it quite good so far. Reading, Janet, not listening, because I know what you mean.

  2. Janet Says:

    Well, better for Lent than Advent.
    I think I would have to read it again to pull all those strands together. Is that long passage on quantum mechanics accurate, and is that the sort of thing you so?


    • cburrell Says:

      Yes, “The Passenger” does have many threads, and an odd shape overall. And, yes, the section on quantum mechanics (really, quantum field theory) is pretty accurate — although I did find an error on the subject in “Stella Maris” the other day. It is the sort of thing I used to do.

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