Thursday, July 15, 2010

Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God"

Cormac McCarthy's Child of God (1973) turned out to less far less terrifying and far sadder than I expected. Having heard it was about murderous necrophiliac, I put off reading it for some time as I know how effective McCarthy's grasp of the literary horrific is (after reading The Road I was so traumatised I couldn't read or watch anything for about three weeks, a process repeated after I saw the film adaptation. And The Road isn't even bad in terms of horror. Ok the cannibalism is pretty revoltorama. Needless to say it's still the best book I've ever read). So I read Child of God and came out unscathed, as it seems more a comment on the state of the American Southern man than an excuse for a horror novel.

Set in 1920s-ish Tennessee, Child of God follows Lester Ballard, a young man with no family or land who wanders the town and mountains muttering to himself and carrying his most precious possession, his rifle, which he can fire more accurately than anyone else around. Ballard is also a road-side peeping-tom who hunts down couples in cars in the woods just to watch them, and soon becomes a road-side killer who hunts down couples in cars, shoots them, hides the bodies in a cave and keeps the female corpses for his own devices.

 It sounds repulsive, and it is. Yet McCarthy is not writing for shock-value and implies, rather than overtly describes, Lester's more hideous actions. What comes through initially is a complex picture of masculine loneliness and inability to connect. Lester's first corpse-bride is one he finds already dead and after dragging her home and buying her a red negligee, he is nervous and at a loss as to what to do, like a boy on a first date. He actually spends quite some time just watching her through the window. Though not sympathetic to the gruesome scenario, I did feel a pang for the wretchedness of this man, so unable to connect with the living that he can only do so sexually with a dead person. Any sympathy elicited was thoroughly quashed a page later when he hoisted the woman unceremoniously via a rope and pulley into his attic, her violated body flopping about and void of dignity, and I was reminded of exactly what happening. McCarthy is clever like this, unveiling the hopelessness of humanity and damning it at the same time.

Lester becomes madder and madder, talking to himself frequently and wearing the clothes of his female victims, including a "fright wig"(pg 163) which the audience is later told is a human scalp. At first, I read this as a parody of the original, pioneering American Southern man, lone ranger of the mountains with nothing but a gun and his skills therewith. By the end of the novel, however, I realised that Lester was no parody, but represented the true nature of the Southern man. McCarthy is critiquing the heroic tradition of the South/Western male: this man is alone, is a destroyer, cannot reproduce sexually for he is attracted only to the dead, with no desire to relate to the living except through violence. This man is also no “man” at all, but becomes a hodge-podge of gender stereotypes, a haphazardly destructive combination of cultural ideas of man and woman. This is summed up when Lester is described as "some demented hero or bedraggled parody of patriotic poster come aswamp and his mouth wide open for the howling of oaths until the log swept into a deeper pool and rolled and the waters closed over him" (pg 147). Lester is here sucked underwater by imagery of male and female anatomy, that is, the log and waters closing over him.

When Lester finally dies, it is in hospital. His body is donated to a med school and then "scraped from the table into a plastic bag" and interred (pg 184). While this abrupt and unpleasant end is perhaps deserved, it curiously sheds a similar dark light on the male medical students that has already been shed on Lester. Are they really that different from him, ripping open a dead body and discarding it once its used up? Though I hate reading rape as a metaphor, it's possible to interpret the text as suggesting that just because people aren’t killers or rapists doesn’t mean they aren’t representative of the same ideology. Scary. And the cost, I think, is the loss of individual lives – male or female, whatever the terms may mean – as seen through the deaths of Lester’s victims and his own human loneliness.

If you weren't desperate to read this book when you read the words "murderous necrophiliac" you should be after hearing about its depressing ending. Seriously, though, I do recommend it. It's such an interesting piece to read beside other texts from the region. But do it on a day you're up for thinking about things indoors with all your housemates home - not before you go on a mountain hike with you bf/gf.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an interesting read - I'll have to get into it. I think it's interesting that Trublood has a similar Southern/Middle American setting. There is something latently murderous in that region, despite the lure of friendliness and pie. It's a really interesting place to look at in terms of dichotomy too, with such a large and quite devout Christian population in that area. It's almost a breeding ground for writers etc to look at moral oppositions.