Falsely accused of rape, Lester Ballard – a violent, dispossessed man who haunts the hill country of East Tennessee – is released from jail and allowed to roam at will, preying on the population with his strange lusts. His everyday actions are transformed into stunning scenes of the comic and the grotesque. And as Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God hurtles toward its unforgettable conclusion,  McCarthy depicts the most sordid aspects of life with dignity, humor, and characteristic lyrical brilliance.

Cormac McCarthy's Child of GodOverarching themes of the novel are cruelty, isolation, and moral degradation of humans and the role of fate and society in it. In an interview with James Franco, director of the novel’s movie adaptation, McCarthy remarked that “there are people like him [Ballard] all around us”. One of the novel’s main themes is sexual deviancy, specifically necrophilia. Ballard, who the novel makes clear is unable to have conventional romantic relationships, eventually descends into necrophilia after finding a dead couple in a car. After this “first love” is destroyed in a fire, he becomes proactive, creating dead female partners by shooting them with his rifle. Ballard also makes no distinction between adult women and young girls, at one point killing a girl whom he had previously asked “How come you wear them britches? You cain’t see nothin.” Another theme examined by the novel is survival. As society pushes Ballard further and further into a corner, he degenerates into a barbaric survivalist, living in a cave, stealing food, and deviously escaping after he is captured by a group of vengeful men. Much like McCarthy’s later novel Blood Meridian, the novel explores the nature of cruelty, depicting violence as an eternal driving force of humanity:

He came up flailing and sputtering and began to thrash his way toward the line of willows that marked the submerged creek bank. He could not swim, but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up. Some halt in the way of things seems to work here. See him. You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it. But they want this man’s life. He has heard them in the night seeking him with lanterns and cries of execration. How then is he borne up? Or rather, why will not these waters take him?

This passage bears a striking resemblance to the closing pages of Blood Meridian, wherein Judge Holden declares that war is beautiful, comparing it to dance. That novel’s main text ends with the judge in the center of a barroom, rallying the raucous men around him with a performance: “He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”

Categories: Literature