Spend any time reading the news, driving the interstates, or peering into the recesses of your own heart, and it’s clear that people are messed up.
After hearing dusty tales of “a bunch of lowlife thieves and cowards and murderers,” a young man asks an old timer if people were meaner in the past than the present. “No,” says he answers, “I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one.”
The exchange is from Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, which is about a man named Lester Ballard. The potency of the old timer’s comment comes against the backdrop of Ballard’s crimes. Progressively crazy, increasingly violent, he kills women and then abuses their corpses, which he stockpiles in caverns deep in the mountainside.
Ballard provokes revulsion, especially in the context of the old timer’s comment and another one from McCarthy at the start of the novel, describing his character as “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.”
Perhaps not. Perhaps yes?
At the start of the story, Ballard is evicted from his home. He then squats in an old shack and, after accidentally destroying it, moves into a cave. All the while his dispossession and dehumanization becomes more extreme — whether caused by his own crimes or his neighbors’ horrified reactions to his antisocial behavior.
The increasing savagery butts against the notion that Ballard is a child of God. This child of God kills other children of God. He lives in a cave. He’s bestial.
As we witness Ballard’s demise we hope the old timer is wrong. People are not the same from the day God first made one. They can’t be. They are fallen. There is something gone radically askew inside them.
McCarthy’s story works because we don’t believe the old timer — and yet we recognize that everything in our world is nonetheless broken, that it shouldn’t be the way it inescapably seems to be. The tension created by that dichotomy is currency for the literary transaction that McCarthy (and most any other storyteller) offers.
What we’re buying, if we want it, is yet another confirmation of humanity’s need for a savior.