Cormac McCarthy: Child of God

The last book I read before I began this blog, over the Christmas holidays 2006, was Cormac McCarthy’s festive The Road. I had some quibbles with it, but it’s one of those books which, partly through the distance of memory and partly through the ubiquity it has attained since then, seems almost unassailable, a cornerstone of the modern canon. But my previous efforts with McCarthy – All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian – had been abortive struggles. So, inspired by blog reviews and the handsome reissues by Picador in the UK, I tackled one of McCarthy’s earlier novels (and his shortest).

I was warned in advance that Child of God (1973) was a “rough” and “extremely nasty” book. These red flags overprepared me for what turned out to be unsettling but not all that distressing: there is violence, but it is brief and unexceptional; the most disturbing injury is a bird losing its legs. Still, the book is about an Ed Gein-type serial killer, so the bar was set high.

Lester Ballard is a freak, and if he wasn’t such a loner he’d be in good company. The people around him in East Tennessee are not much less eccentric than he is, like the dumpkeeper’s daughter who indulges him in what passes round those parts for flirtation:

What say, jellybean, she said.

What you laughin at?

What you lookin at?

Why, he’s looking at them there nice titties for one thing, said the man on the drum.

You want to see em.

Sure, said Ballard.

Gimme a quarter.

I ain’t got one.

She laughed.

He stood there grinning.

How much you got?

I got a dime.

Well go borry two and a half cents and you can see one of em.

Then again, Lester’s peculiarities seem to go a little further than most. “They say he was never right after his daddy killed hisself.” His confused flirtations with another woman go too far, or are misinterpreted, and he ends up with jail time for attempted rape. “What you in for,” he asks his cellmate, who replies, “I cut a motherfucker’s head off with a pocketknife.”

The book has an atmosphere of portent, though the threat seems often to be in the reader’s mind, as Ballard fails again and again to live up to our worst fears. Still, he gets there in the end. “Mr Ballard. You are either going to have to find some other way to live or some other place in the world to do it in.” McCarthy makes no excuses and offers no explanations, but on two occasions the narrator does directly address the reader. Right at the start of the book, in the second paragraph, Ballard is described as having “Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of god much like yourself perhaps.” The message is – what? – that god or nature creates monsters; or perhaps that violence to McCarthy is a force in itself, delivered through unknowing vessels like Ballard. Later, the narrator observes that “some halt in the way of things seems to work here. See him. You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it.”

Ballard does seem maimed, his actions desperate rather than malicious. The reader can have a curious sympathy, or at least pity, for him. McCarthy’s prose leaves things open, and only rarely goes off the scale, encrusted with ornament:

Alone in the empty shell of a house the squatter watched through the moteblown glass a rimshard of bone-colored moon come cradling up over the black balsams on the ridge, ink trees a facile hand had sketched against the paler dark of winter heavens.

Most of all, Child of God, with all its dark disgust and beautiful violence, is a pleasure entire. McCarthy’s singular vision was intact – fully formed – even in his early work, and this slim starter was the taster I needed to convince me that I need to read all his others too. A difficult decision, but one which I will delight in agonising over.


  1. This collection is just sublime.

    I really liked All the pretty horses, and hated The Road (I think I’ve already mentioned why on this blog)
    I think my next one will me The Crossing, since I’d rather continue with the Border Trilogy.

  2. “The message is – what? – that god or nature creates monsters; or perhaps that violence to McCarthy is a force in itself, delivered through unknowing vessels like Ballard.”

    I’d re-word that paragraph as follows:

    “The message is -”

    McCarthy’s work may provoke our moral faculties, but he himself is no moralist, nor even a polemicist using fiction as a cloak for messages whose moral content is weak. The closest you could come to discussing a message in Child of God would be to say that the message is that Lester is. Full stop.

    I think Child of God is a fine book by any standard, but, even so, it is one of McCarthy’s weakest. If you liked it, your next port of call should be Outer Dark, which is still on the same tonal wavelength as Child of God, but a bit more challenging because more overtly (and carefully) modernist in its ambiguities and its absence of explanation and exposition. The Orchard Keeper is somewhat similar, although it is weaker on the more conventional fronts of narrative, character development, and so on.

    A word of advice: leave Blood Meridian and Suttree until the end. Both are quite difficult books — purposefully, intricately, and meticulously difficult — whereas the Border Trilogy and No Country for Old Men are far more straightforward. I’m not such a fan of the Border Trilogy, probably because it’s McCarthy’s most self-consciously “accessible” work, although the first part of The Crossing features some of the finest and most evocative writing about animals that I have encountered anywhere, and stands well enough on its own, quite distinct from the remainder of the Trilogy.

    The first five novels, however, are decidedly McCarthy’s best work, and it’s a toss-up between the fourth and the fifth as to which one is his true masterpiece. My own opinion on that matter wavers from day to day.

  3. I’ve read a few McCarthy, and have never been irked (in a bad way, anyway) or disappointed. That there is still so much to go at, such as this, is tantalising. Thus far, I would say Blood Meridian is the best of his that I’ve read, a magnificent piece of work.

  4. I can’t remember now which McCarthy book I first read. I think it was this one, closely followed by Suttree. He lost me for a while with Cities Of The Plain, which I found … well I can’t really remember what I found – it bored me and I’ve forgotten it almost completely. But all the other novels, up to The Crossing, remain very clear in my head. They are wonderful, and despite the tendency to think of a consistent McCarthy style, they are wonderfully different. I remember Suttree (it’s a long time since I’ve read it) as a beautifully funny chunk of humantiy, filled with Beckett and Twain and Flannery O’Connor. And Blood Meridian, which I re-read after The Road, is carnage in language. It’s shameful to revel in it so much, and therein is its achievement.

    No Country For Old Men got me back to him … partially. The mechanics are showing, and while that’s fascinating in itself, it does rather get hit by a car somewhere towards the end and limp off into the sunset.

    The Road overwhelmed me, in a way that I suspect had at least as much to do with my state of mind at the time than with the book itself. One of the most difficult reading experiences I’ve had. I don’t quite trust my own opinion of the book, because my opinion is sort of insane.

    There you go. My adventures in McCarthyism.

  5. Like you I tried twice with Pretty Horses and also struggled with The Crossing – his style had too much of what Wes Anderson parodied as ‘ they rode on in the friscalating dusklight.’ Came back with the Road, and No Country, and reading your post I think I’ll go for Blood Meridian now.

  6. John,

    Nice. Just FYI. It seems his fourth published novel, Suttree, was the first started.
    He seems to be the kind of writer who works on more than one at a time.

    The others before that one are the early ones, of course, but perhaps only he and his editor know in what order he worked on them.

  7. Great review. I’ve always been a big McCarthy fan and your review caused me to add Child of God to my list. I was truly disturbed by The Road, which I consider one of the best (and most honest) books of the modern era. And I enjoyed Blood Meridian (which I’ll review on the blog soon), though it was a difficult read for its unrepentant violence. Reading past the violence, I got the sense that there was true brilliance in the work. No Country did little for me as literature, but it was a nice story all the same. I short, for his body of solid work, I think I’d have to give McCarthy the nod as one of our greatest living writers.

  8. Hm, I recall attracting some disagreement when I suggested on your Facebook page John that McCarthy is overrated. I have to admit, my view on that is heavily influenced by The Road, which I think will struggle to maintain its place in the canon (or should struggle anyway).

    Still, this sounds like a good one to try him again on. All the elements are there, but apparently without the sometimes clumsy prose and dialogue of The Road (sometimes, at many other times The Road was beautifully written with marvellous dialogue, just not consistently so).

  9. Lester Ballard is a grand characterological achievement! And for a sharp metaphysical shudder, I highly recommend The Crossing, especially the last 50 or so pages. Exquisite stuff, McC’s fiction is, that’s for sure.

  10. in a new non-fiction book I am reading called “Broke USA” I learned this;

    The Pay-Day Lending biz started in northeastern Tennessee, which is early Cormac McCarthy’s Yoknapatawpha County. Novels up to Blood Meridian…

    “this corner of the world has long been the kind of place that gives a man elbow room and the ethical leeway to make a
    living any way he sees fit. Grundy County, to the west, had long been known throughout the region as the car-stripping
    capital of the South…………..and also known for “shade-tree mechanics”….men who made their money rolling back odometers
    for unscrupulous auto dealers……..they would also work all day banging out dents and installing new upholstery, whatever it took
    to make a car seem to have less real mileage”….—Broke, USA….

    Cormac’s deep understanding of the poor, unmoored—from the Old Country, from the American dream; from the moral order: “ethical leeway”—people extends to the present….

    Literature gets it right when it is literature.

  11. This book has stayed with me perhaps more than any of his others I’ve read (up to six of the ten now). I loved it and was chilled by it. Lester is such a wonderfully pathetic character, and the town was such a chilling place to visit.

    Ive been looking forward to your review since I saw you were reading it. Now I look forward to your review of Outer Dark — whenever you get to it, of course.

  12. I have to agree with Max that The Road is overrated. It is very good, but not the best book of a generation as some have claimed. The Road is my favorite McCarthy so far (having only read, in addition, All the Pretty Horses and No Country for Old Men), but I am heartened that the consensus here seems to be that Blood Meridian and Suttree are his best works. It’s a good thing to have an excellent author’s best to anticipate.

    I definitely enjoyed this review, but, as I am unlikely to become a McCarthy completist, I probably won’t get around to it. Thanks for reminding me to get to the others though.

  13. Try Suttree next. That’s a book I should revisit. I read a rare McCarthy interview — might have been in the New York Times Magazine; I forget — that mentioned that No Country and The Road were quickly written with another book (unpublished, upcoming) back in the mid-80s, as sort of breaks from Meridian.

    That, to me, is astounding.

    Those are lovely, lovely covers. I think this David Pearson fellow is crazy good. I’d probably re-buy the lot if I lived in your land.

  14. This is one of the early McCarthy books I still need to read, but to this point I’m partial to the first two books in the trilogy, partly because of their accessibility — I think some writers (or artists of any type) benefit from moving toward the accessible. When McCarthy is in full baroque-Biblical mode, he sometimes veers into a parody of himself. I think The Road suffers from that greatly, and is wildly overrated — the literary-praise equivalent of giving someone a “lifetime Oscar” for a mediocre work, combined with our culture’s momentary love of apocalypse in just about any guise.

    David Pearson does some incredible work, but these covers leave me cold. Too much of a good thing or something. I love the original U.S. designs for the trilogy.

  15. Thanks for all the comments, recommendations and guidance, everyone. Oddly, I didn’t consider All the Pretty Horses to be particularly accessible (I don’t like that word but I can’t think of another immediately) when I tried reading it in the early 1990s. Yet Child of God was clear and beautiful to me. A good sign, I hope, and I will return to McCarthy’s backlist soon (I’d better: I’ve got nine of the buggers on my shelves to get through) – with Blood Meridian at the peak of the climb.

  16. John, I think Blood Meridian is a good choice to conclude the climb up Mount McCarthy. It was the third McCarthy I read (five in total now) and though not my favourite, I can well see why many consider it his masterpiece and I shan’t argue with their judgement for a moment. Its scale, breadth and sheer thematic massiveness absolutely befits the masterpiece accolade despite others being more enjoyable, in my view. It’s so very, very McCarthy. The Road, though I preferred it, is McCarthy-lite by comparison.

    I’d imagine that if future generations want to know what sort of a writer he was, they’d be hard pressed to find a better representation amongst his oeuvre than Blood Meridian. Though at times a tough slog, it’s wholly memorable.

    I hereby cease waffling.

  17. It’s interesting how Tarantino used Blood Meridian’s references for his last movie, especially those gory scalps!

  18. OK, “extremely nasty” is probably over the top, but it’s strong stuff. Beautifully realised by McCarthy. His ability to describe the physical reality of the world is remarkable. Rain, fire, cold, scenes of desolation and renewal.

    Judging by comments above, Outer Dark (which I don’t have) may be a better next choice then All The Pretty Horses (which I do).

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