Child of God (1974)

Suspenseful, spare, a quick and compelling read, Child of God is at the same time McCarthy’s most extreme challenge to the limits of propriety, perhaps outdoing even Blood Meridian in its chronicling of individual depravity. Its hero, Lester Ballard, is a murderer and necrophile, expelled from the human family and eventually living in underground caves, which he peoples with his trophies: giant stuffed animals won in carnival shooting galleries and the decomposing corpses of his several shot victims, male and female. This is the child of God. Yet McCarthy’s meditation on this lost soul is restrained, even delicate, in its images of his grievous acts. There are fewer graphic assaults on the reader’s imagination than in either Suttree or Blood Meridian. And his treatment of Lester is more sympathetic than of comparable beyond-the-pale characters, Culla Holme in Outer Dark and the kid in Blood Meridian, perhaps to the reader’s discomfort.

The novel’s three sections are rather different in narrative stance, and through them McCarthy deftly manipulates response to Lester. Section I opens with Lester’s attempt to disrupt the auction of his family farm in Sevier County, Tennessee with verbal threats and gestures of his rifle, only to be foiled by a blow from behind with the blunt side of an axe. His homeplace gone, Lester inhabits an abandoned cabin on a neighbor’s property and roams the rural environs with their overgrowth of kudzu and the detritus of human material culture in trash dumps and abandoned quarries: a later and debased version of Arthur Ownby’s ruined orchards, where Lester gleans the cast-off artifacts of man’s mechanical invention. He turns up at stores, churches, and dwellings of neighbors with nubile daughters, seeking some form of inclusion or, as winter sets in, mere warmth; but increasingly Lester is becoming the outsider, onlooker, voyeur. He haunts the Frog Mountain turnaround, where couples couple in their cars, and watches, masturbating. One morning there he finds a whore who has apparently been deserted, and his tentative efforts at compassion are repaid with revilement and false accusations of rape. Throughout this section and the next, Lester manifests a rage to control born of impotence and frustration, cursing his neighbors, nature, the very food that he eats: all that thwarts him.

McCarthy breaks up this narrative of Lester’s life from summer to winter in the year of his material dispossession with choric voices from the community in every second or third chapter as several unidentified citizens indulge in shocked judgments of his life after his later crimes are discovered. These provide crucial flashbacks as neighbors recall his mother’s desertion when he was quite young and his father’s hanging himself in the barn, where the nine or ten-year-old Lester discovered him with his eyes “run out on stems like a crawfish and his tongue blacker’n a chow dog’s” (21). Because they never reveal precisely what Lester has become, these insiders’ voices suspensefully foreshadow his maddest offenses even as they seek with hindsight to explain his evil acts. The consensus is that Lester was “never right,” that his evil acts prove his constitutional difference from them, that he is other. “You can trace em back to Adam if you want and goddamn if he didn’t outstrip em all,” Section I ends (81). Thus they complete the process of expulsion begun with their shame over the forced sale of his property, never recognizing in Lester his potential for a different kind of life, and never owning their complicity in fixing his direction; it is apt that the community’s official representative and spokesman is the sheriff named Fate Turner.

Section II focuses exclusively on Lester, chronicling step by “logical” step his descent into necrophilia and murder and madness from his finding a couple asphyxiated in their car on Frog Mountain and taking possession of the girl’s body, to his loss of this first love when he accidentally burns down his cabin in his rage to keep her thawed and himself warm, to his premeditated murder of a neighbor and burning her house to conceal that he has taken the body, to his opportunistic murder of couples at the turnaround to acquire fresh, warm bodies. After the cabin burns, he retreats into caves, a fitting emblem of his descent into darkness and blindness. Finally, he loses all self-protective restraint in the progressive corruption of his moral sense and the temporary gratification of his rage to control, and out of jealousy and vengefulness he watches and plans to kill Greer, the man who has bought Lester’s land. Like the most dire of McCarthy’s characters in other novels, he is above all alone, both stalking the winter landscape and lying underground surrounded by his family of the dead. In a false spring he watches bats awaken and fly through a blowhole in the cavern’s roof. “When they were gone he watched the hordes of cold stars sprawled across the smokehole and wondered what stuff they were made of, or himself” (141).

The novel’s third section begins with a chapter focused on Sheriff Fate Turner and his investigation of the murders. With the coming of spring, evidence hidden by the snow is revealed, and floods force a removal of Lester’s possessions to another cave on higher ground. It is clear that Lester’s life of crime will soon be detected. But the exposure is more directly of Lester’s own doing. Despite the occasional re-emergence of “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” (158), he dreams one night that he is “riding to his death” (171). The next day he shows up at Greer’s place dressed in clothes and a scalp taken from his victims, ambushing him. Greer’s return fire carries away Lester’s arm, a loss that elicits no surprise in him when he wakes in a hospital. When a mob kidnaps him and threatens to kill him if he does not lead them to his victims’ bodies, Lester takes them into the caves, where he eludes them. But he is himself lost, and he wanders underground for five days seeking a way out and imagining his death. When at last he emerges, he has a moment of epiphany, recognizing himself in the face of a young boy in the window of a church bus that passes him. He returns to the hospital, affirming, “I’m supposed to be here” (192), finally achieving an ironic mode of inclusion within the community that had compounded his parents’ abandonment. He becomes a ward and possession of the community’s institutions, incarcerated in an asylum until he dies, when his body is dissected by medical students. The novel’s end juxtaposes the bagging and disposal of Lester Ballard’s mortal flesh with that of his victims, raised from their cave to be interred by the state.

Child of God is apparently based on a historical murder case in Tennessee, and McCarthy’s story is anchored within a rich texture of realistic detail. Yet it is also rich in metaphysical suggestion, and with its economy of focus, pared of extraneous incident, character or subplot, it can be read as myth or parable, much like Outer Dark (1968). Despite its tracing of Lester’s process of alienation and loss of moral direction, the novel resists all effort on the part of community or reader to explain empirically either his crimes or his quasi-redemption. The novel insists that such explanations are specious a posteriori false comfort, and that Lester Ballard is finally, or potentially, everyman: “A child of God much like yourself perhaps” (4).

The preceding précis is Copyright © 1996 by Dianne C. Luce.