‘You think people was meaner then than they are now? the deputy said. The old man was looking out at the flooded town. No, he said. I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one…’
Anyone with even a passing interest in Cormac McCarthy will know that he isn’t a barrel of laughs. In fact, he isn’t even a jar of giggles, he’s barely a thimble of grimaces. You get the point. Even by his grim standards though, Child of God is particularly unrelenting…
Lester Ballard is a violent psychopath who lives an isolated and numb life in the mountains of Tennessee in the 60s. Child of God tracks his descent from barely functioning member of a dysfunctional community to out and out villainous murderer. As with Patrick Bateman and American Psycho, Lester Ballard’s myriad of unspeakable crimes are detailed matter of factly, detached from either emotion or comment. This indifferent delivery coupled with the inconsistent narration makes for a disorientating but compelling read.
The novel begins with colloquial narration from an unnamed source, but the prose becomes more straightforward for the second and third acts and it is in these passages that Cormac McCarthy’s almost poetic use of language becomes richly evocative and darkly disturbing.
Lester Ballard isn’t an anti-hero, he is a disgusting and heartless freak whose crimes take in arson, murder and necrophilia. Despite all this, McCarthy wrings a morsel of sympathy for his wretched antagonist and it is a testament to his ability as a writer that he is able to do so.
The world described in Child of God is pointless and cruel, and while it is genuinely quite alarming that communities like this still exist across the world, it is also important to reflect on the reasons why. Are we indeed all God’s children or are some people beyond redemption?