Cormac McCarthy, Child of God (Vintage, 1973)
[originally posted 13Nov2000]
McCarthy’s third novel is spare, stark, and inconceivably humorous, like all of his work. While it’s not as lyrically powerful as Blood Meridian, it is easy to see how McCarthy progressed from the nascent power in evidence here to the fully-realized masterpiece that is the latter novel.
Child of God is the story of Lester Ballard, a man much like the rest of McCarthy’s heroes; of seemingly substandard intelligence, full of a restless and violent anger which may or may not be the logical extension of his intelligence, set adrift at a critical juncture in his life. In Ballard’s case, he is set adrift (at the age of twenty-eight; remarkably older than the protagonists of Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses) after his family’s home is seized and sold at auction. (We are never told what happened to his family; draw your own inferences.) Ballard is forced to live in the only way he can; by his wits, wandering from place to place, his only real talent the use of a gun.
McCarthy gives the reader no choice here; you are forced to identify with Ballard in the first few sentences, and despite the heavy-handedness of the comparison (which one assumes is intentional), it works. From there, you’re pretty much stuck with Ballard, as if you were the reluctant shotgun-rider on a killing spree (think David Duchovny in Kalifornia, if you like; McCarthy has about as much regard for his reader’s emotions as Brad Pitt does for Duchovny’s life expectancy, and it’s a chilling state of affairs). McCarthy’s prose, always sweetly rhythmic, is starker than usual here, and for a McCarthy novel Child of God is a supremely easy read. It will leave you simultaneously feeling dirty (assuming you had problems with being associated with Ballard in the first place; otherwise, vindication is the most likely response) and shedding a private tear for the novel’s conclusion. It’s not unexpected; this is simple, obvious American metatragedy, and there can really be only one outcome. That doesn’t make that outcome any less perfect.
This novel doesn’t not get five stars because there’s anything wrong with it; it just doesn’t quite get to the same level of astonishment that Blood Meridian does. Being the easier novel of the two to read, this may well be a good starting point for those just getting into McCarthy (or those who got lost along the way by McCarthy’s diction in All the Pretty Horses). Given that McCarthy is one of a handful of authors who can stake a claim as America’s Finest Living Novelist, “getting into McCarthy” shouldn’t be a take-it-or-leave-it option. This is one of the pinnacles of American fiction in the twentieth century. **** ½