Although Cormac McCarthy has not won the fame or attained the financial success of many of his contemporaries, his works have received high praise from critics and from other writers. Technically, he has even been called superior to William Faulkner, another Southern writer, who in 1949 won the Nobel Prize in Literature. McCarthy’s skills with spoken and written language are evident in Child of God, in which he moves easily from the laconic, colorful dialogue of his Tennessee mountaineers to descriptive passages whose lyricism is as often inspired by junked cars and moldy mattresses as by the beauty of the natural setting.
McCarthy’s handling of narrative is as brilliant as his use of language. Child of God is on one level the story of a single man, Lester Ballard, during a relatively brief period of time. The narrator also reaches far into the historic past to describe the misdeeds of Lester’s distant ancestors and of a whole troubled society; McCarthy thus gives his novel intellectual depth and thematic complexity. Similarly, the references to Lester’s history, whether they are presented through his dreams and reveries or through the narrator’s vivid anecdotes, make Lester a more complicated character than might be assumed, given his appalling activities.
Lester’s necrophilia, in particular, aroused the ire of some reviewers. Some who had praised McCarthy’s previous work expressed disgust with Child of God and relegated its author to the ranks of those who peddle the grotesque with a Southern setting.
Other critics, however, have found much to interest them in Child of God. Some have even called the book a masterpiece. They point out that McCarthy is careful to emphasize Lester’s humanity. One can understand the feelings of the boy who is abandoned by his mother, then deserted a second time when his father commits suicide, and of the man who is rejected whenever he reaches out to another human being. On a theological level, Lester’s evil impulses can be explained by his being human. The question which must be asked is whether Fate’s warnings constitute an offer of redemption, or whether, in Calvinistic terms, Lester was not born one of the elect but rather born damned.
Lester can also be viewed from a historical perspective. While murder, rape, and necrophilia would hardly have met the approval of any Jeffersonian democrat, it is true that Lester possesses many of the qualities that were admired on the frontier and that are still cherished by Americans with an agrarian leaning. He is an independent farmer, willing to fight to keep his land; when he is deprived of it, he remains independent, using his resourcefulness to live off the land. Clearly McCarthy does not intend to make of Lester a tragic hero; however, given the territorial imperative of an earlier time, it is not surprising that this man who makes his home in the wilderness sees the cars and trucks that invade his territory, and their inhabitants, as fair game. It could also be argued that although the way in which Lester expresses his territoriality is not acceptable in modern society, the impulse is simply another facet of human nature. After all, when Lester ventures outside his own area, as when he sells the watches he has acquired, he is mocked, cheated, and expelled by the community. McCarthy does not equate the territorial impulse with depravity, but like a good Southerner he seems to understand it. He may be suggesting that the territorial impulse is as basic to human beings as is their desire to do evil.
If the real theme of Child of God is human nature, the author leaves readers with more questions than answers. Aside from his technical virtuosity, McCarthy’s creation of Lester Ballard, a character who is at once despicable, pitiable, tragic, doomed, and damned, should assure McCarthy’s place in Southern literature.