Cormac McCarthy and all the broken children of God

Cormac McCarthy and all the broken children of God July 22, 2013

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.

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  • Susan_G1

    Cormac McCarthy delivers a somewhat different message in “No Country for Old Men” – things are getting worse. Ultimately we end up with the post-apocalyptic “The Road”.

    Adam fell. Cain killed Abel. We have always been broken and in need of salvation. But I think every generation wonders if we have gotten worse. I think the last century has shown itself to be the most violent in history. It must be cyclical, because surely we would all be dead by now.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I love The Road and find the ending very hopeful, actually. The idea that the father’s overpossessive love might be remedied and fulfilled in the boy’s rescuer is encouraging. Suddenly there’s the notion that goodness and kindness still exists. One of my favorite books.

      • Susan_G1

        I agree that the ending is lovely, full of kindness and goodness. But I wonder how hopeful it is. I know it is meant to be hopeful, but that hopefulness must fly in the face of all that comes before.

        The man and his son have gone to the end of the land, and there is little there but more of the same (thievery, want, and some who choose to carry the fire.) The man has a gun, and enough food to feed even a dog. But what is the likelihood that any of this will end well? The planet cannot support life yet. Humans are a main source of fat and proteins. The finding of unplundered food sources is as rare as hen’s teeth. Is our hope blind (they’ll make it, a new Adam and Eve) or is it temporary (as long as man lives, there is hope)?

        • Joel J. Miller

          The only hope present is satisfactory to me. Love. The facts are the facts, at least as the novel presents, but then there is the possibility of love. For the first time, really in the whole story. Remember when the father won’t help the helpless and the child asks why. Charity is a liability and the good are afraid of each other. Into that world, comes an extended hand. That’s enough for me.

  • rvs

    Thanks for writing on this topic. I found Blood Meridian to be oddly moving. We get an unmistakable sense that something evil exists beyond the natural world. Judge Holden–a fascinating preternatural villain. McCarthy is good at reminding us that evil outruns naturalistic explanations, or at least that’s the argument I would make. The recent season of Dexter appears to be trying to make another type of argument about psychopaths. To this I say hmmm.

    • Joel J. Miller

      Interesting comparison. I found Blood Meridian fascinating and moving as well. Such a rich book.