Child of God was Cormac McCarthy’s third novel, and is the first book of his I’ve read for a while. I read and loved The Road a few years ago, liked but didn’t love The Border Trilogy*, really enjoyed Blood Meridian and The Sunshine Limited, and liked No Country for Old Men quite a lot. And then I stopped reading McCarthy. Why?
Starting to read Child of God, I felt like the reason had been a personal growing up and away from terse, American fiction. I read the first 80 or 90 pages of this short novel and thought to myself, “I can see why I used to like writing like this and I can see why it is supposed to be good.” But, this time, older, I wasn’t feeling anything. I didn’t think the novel was bad: it was a soft, gentle, poetic portrait of a man living on the edge of society in the Southern United States in the middle of the 20th century. That’s fine, that’s commendable, that’s “art-worthy”. But there was no emotional kicker. Though Lester Ballard commits many petty thefts and is a bit violent, horny and unpredictable, he does nothing either truly terrifying or remotely redeeming. But at the novel’s midway point, though, he does and it’s awful and the book suddenly elicits a strong and a heavy emotion in the reader: Fear.
Child of God is not a sweet text, but it is scary. It is “Southern Gothic”, a scary monster terrorising a small rural community and-
The plot is exciting, I won’t detail it because a) it works and b) the book is well written and evocative. Evocative of forests and caves and mountains and snow. Cold and heat, fire and flesh, lust and hunger. McCarthy’s text is a character portrait of a very messy character. It offers the occasional snippet of the society he lives in, outside of Lester’s interpretation, and many of these are the most powerful scenes in the first half of the novel. I say scenes, I mean sketches. Actually, Child of God is close to being a composite novel made of prose poems. I think I’d have enjoyed it less but respected it more if it hadn’t been anything else.
A good read, but not as good as either The Road or Blood Meridian. Terrifying, though.
* My main problem with it being the large amount of Spanish, which at that point I didn’t know. If I reread it now, I’d probably enjoy it a lot more. “It” the trilogy, not “them” the novels that make up the trilogy.