Cormac McCarthy McCarthy, Cormac (Vol. 4) - Essay

McCarthy, Cormac (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McCarthy, Cormac 1933–

McCarthy is an American novelist. See also Cormac McCarthy Criticism (Volume 101) and Blood Meridian Criticism.

Incest and murder in the backwoods of East Tennessee sometime during the nineteenth century are principal ingredients in the witch's brew concocted by [McCarthy] in a second novel [Outer Dark] artfully designed to prickle the skin and tighten the scalp of any susceptible reader. Three sinister embodiments of evil cast their malignant shadows from time to time while brother and sister search for each other and the sickly infant born out of their unnatural union in an atmosphere redolent of unmentionable horrors that frequently materialize as sin but no redemption, crime but no punishment. Had Mr. McCarthy given more of a philosophical cast to his tale of terror so that the torment, suffering, and anguish might have a meaning more real than apparent, his narrative would have possessed a significance all its own, quite apart from its merits as a bravura piece.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 45, No. 1 (Winter, 1969), p. viii.

"Child of God" … demands its reader's attention from the opening sentence and is composed of brief fragments, but Cormac McCarthy's skill as a writer is not supported by a grasp of his narrative as a whole….

The scene is ostensibly Tennessee, but more nearly a caricature of a Faulknerian landscape: a place that lends itself to incest, murder, necrophilia.

McCarthy is a brilliant writer who can, in a page or two, create a blacksmith Kipling would admire, a man who explains in words close to poetry how to beat and hammer an old ax to make it new again. McCarthy can, in a few paragraphs, write about a boar pursued and killed by hounds as if the subject were fresh, and yet against the brightness of these scenes his protagonist lumbers in silhouette….

This novel, according to its jacket blurb, "explores the limits of human degradation." Unfortunately, it explores nothing at all. Certain acts—a brain-damaged child, for instance, chewing the legs off a robin—are presented to us in McCarthy's admirably distilled prose from which all emotion has been pared away. But there is no resonance, no perspective in attendance, and these isolated episodes, left unconnected on our laps, fade from our memory even before the book is finished. Cormac McCarthy is a good writer confronted with a difficult subject; the pity is that he seems to have retired from the field before he engaged his narrative.

Peter S. Prescott, "Dangerous Witness," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), January 7, 1974, pp. 63, 67.

It seems to be true in fiction—and it may be in life—that there are characters so flattened by fate before they crawl into our view that they exist beneath the reach of tragedy. Cormac McCarthy's child of God, Lester Ballard, is such a character….

Harsh words constitute the novel like bumps of dirty ice, and harsh scenes stud it, some quite effectively repulsive…. But the carefully cold, sour diction of this book—whose hostility toward the reader surpasses even that of the world toward Lester—does not often let us see beyond its nasty "writing" into moments we can see for themselves, rendered. And such moments, authentic though they feel, do not much help a novel so lacking in human momentum or point.

Its hopefully suggestive title implies that Lester warrants our attention because he is a child of God and because, therefore, he is "much like yourself perhaps," as the author timidly posits. But Lester is not demonstrably connected to the rest of us in a way reached without straining, and he is not, either, connected to himself….

Nor is the novel a "horror story," calculated to make us shudder. But even if that were its intention, it would not be more successful than it is as a statement about cruelty, isolation, inhumanity, etc. It is too self-contained for significant effectiveness on any level….

What we have in "Child of God" is an essentially sentimental novel that no matter how sternly it strives to be tragic is never more than morose.

Richard P. Brickner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 13, 1974, pp. 6-7.

McCarthy is perhaps the closest we have to a genuine heir to the Faulknerian tradition. His prose sounds and feels like Faulkner's and his themes are similar to Faulkner's. Yet he is not merely an eerily skilled imitator. His novels have a stark, mythic quality that is very much their own, as Child of God stunningly demonstrates.

To continue the parallel with Faulkner (though I do not wish to belabor it), McCarthy's novels occupy not the country of Absalom! Absalom! but of As I Lay Dying. They are about hard country people struggling to stay alive, and a central character is the hard, wooded countryside itself. Their people are, if literate at all, barely so; their landscape is beautiful but rough; their mood is dark, yet broken by bright flashes of humor and lovingly drawn descriptive passages….

The sordid material of Lester Ballard's tale becomes more than an exercise in southern grotesque because of McCarthy's artistry. His prose is lean, packed with vivid imagery, building its own force and intensity; the quasi-Faulknerian excesses that mar some passages of The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark are almost totally absent here. The narrative, which alternates between the author's voice and those of the hill people, is tense, adroit and economical.

What makes Child of God an unusual and remarkable book is that McCarthy succeeds in making Ballard a sympathetic character. That may seem improbable, considering the crimes Ballard commits, but his is a story about a man who loses everything yet carries on, hanging on to life. It is the old Faulknerian theme of endurance and persistence, here seen in new light and brilliantly explored. There are moments when Ballard becomes as human, a real child of God, as any among us….

[Somewhere] deep in Lester Ballard, beneath all that anger and outrage and despair, there is love and yearning. It is that which makes his story so poignant and, in the end, surprisingly and affectingly universal. Child of God is an extraordinary book.

Jonathan Yardley, "Alone, Alone, All, All Alone …," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 13, 1974, p. 1.

Child of God [is] a reading experience so impressive, so "new," so clearly made well that it seems almost to defy the easy esthetic categories and at the same time to cause me to thrash about for some help with the necessary description of my enthusiasm. Cormac McCarthy is a Southerner, a born storyteller (to judge from this, the only one of his three novels I have read), a writer of natural, impeccable dialogue, a literary child of Faulkner. His third novel resembles, in a small way, As I Lay Dying, but in other ways, it is related to very few things you may have read before….

[The] lack of contrast between the rotting victims and the details of Ballard, child of God's life is the subject of this extraordinary quest-novel. In less than 200 pages, the journey from death-in-life to death-in-death, from the hunted to the discovery of the hunting, from the unnatural to the natural and even supernatural, from fury against life to fury against the living, is accomplished in rare, spare, precise yet poetic prose. It is played out, always, or resolved might be better, in the presence of sometimes cruel, sometimes beneficent Nature, in what Faulkner called "the travail of man within his environment"….

Again like a child of Faulkner, McCarthy is capable of black, reasonable comedy at the heart of his tragedy….

In McCarthy's eyes there is a holy alliance between the madness of Ballard and the wet, cold confusion of his surroundings, the "disorder in the woods, trees down, new paths needed. Given charge Ballard would have made things more orderly in the woods and in men's souls." The natural world and the world of violence and madness are united in Ballard….

About Lester Ballard there is no prehistory, we know almost nothing we have not been able to watch, like voyeurs perched somewhere above him in his Tennessee hills. We never come close to understanding him or the cutting, touching, harsh beauty of his landscape: both are equally immune to our comprehension…. Cormac McCarthy has allowed us direct communion with his special kind of chaos; every sentence he writes illuminates, if only for a moment, the great dark of madness and violence and inevitable death that surrounds us all.

Doris Grumbach, "Practitioner of Ghostliness," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), February 9, 1974, pp. 26-8.

Cormac McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper, an impressive, complex debut, was a recipient of the William Faulkner Foundation Award. Contrary to rumor, this annual prize is not bestowed upon first novels which best mimic the South's greatest master. But to its misfortune, The Orchard Keeper bore countless comparisons to Faulkner's novels. The story, chronicling young John Wesley's friendship with his father's murderer, echoes the major Faulkner themes: the criminal as hero, the interplay of language, memory and myth, and the overriding problem of survival.

To admire and emulate a master is not a fault; and the fact that Southern writers continue to be influenced by Faulkner should now be a dead issue. The Orchard Keeper suffers less from its Southern origins than from its Irish excesses. McCarthy takes an intriguing, basically linear plot, splits it into three separate strands, and, by means of a lush coating of language gives his story an unnecessary "poetic" facade. He approaches his theme with caution, using language as a distancing element, the perfect equivalent to the novel's narrative technique where strict chronological order is relinquished for a mistier interweaving of events. Ostensibly, the story takes place in the Tennessee hill country during the Depression years, but McCarthy's prose allows little period detail to emerge. McCarthy wishes to describe rather than to relate. Everything is highly "imagined" and all natural events read like eulogies to some great Cosmic spirit….

Outer Dark, McCarthy's second novel, begins in the teeth of an incestuous affair that is thick with Gothic atmosphere. It matters little that we are in an unspecified region of the South during an unspecified period of time. The terrain is lean and uncluttered. There are few modern objects in sight, and the stage is set for the passions of a morality play….

Outer Dark is an exceptional advance over The Orchard Keeper. The language is less florid, and McCarthy squarely faces the Faulknerian overtones, thereby avoiding the suppressed violence of The Orchard Keeper. The three men who ransack and murder are a brilliant device; a mad variation on the Magi, they skim about the perimeter of the tale and eventually bring the work to its justifiable conclusion. The creation of landscape is McCarthy's finest achievement. By some magical combination—leaving the locale unspecified but investing it with a fairy tale quality—the land has a disturbing quietude where actuality turns ever so gently into myth without sacrificing the necessary reality.

With Child of God, language is a blessing. McCarthy is not beyond an occasional flourish, as in this purplish depiction of urination: "The man stands straddlelegged, has made in the dark humus a darker pool wherein swirls a pale foam with bits of straw." But in general the prose is pared clean….

The novel is thinner, less full-bodied than either The Orchard Keeper or Outer Dark; this has little to do with length. Faulkner knew when to let his criminals lie still among the shadows and have the citizenry of Yoknapatawpha County capture center stage. There is no corresponding reality against which to pit Lester's violent world. Early in the work McCarthy had interjected brief passages in which the townspeople mulled over the myth and actually of Lester Ballard, but he dropped the device quickly, to the book's detriment. Child of God is a swift exciting read, but we are left with only incisive images strung along a thin plot line, the why and wherefore unexplained.

Child of God will perhaps be looked upon as a bad novel written by a good writer, and this would be regrettable, for Child of God marks a progression in McCarthy's career. He has learned restraint. The "old themes" live on in him, but his South is not rendered with the precision of a realist. He has taken realism to the province of folk myth.

Robert Leiter, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), March 29, 1974, pp. 90-2.

Necrophilia, incest, transvestism, rape, and murder are some of the scabrous subjects incorporated in [Child of God] laid in the mountains of East Tennessee, but the author recites the horrendous proceedings with at least a simulacrum of decency by stating the existence of such situations without dramatizing them to excess, thus conferring upon his narrative a seriousness of purpose somewhat at odds with the nature of his material. What the author has done with his half-demented antihero is view him objectively without passing judgment upon him to any marked degree. Here it is, take it or leave it, the author seems to say, it may all be inherently repulsive, true enough, but this is the way things are among these people in this part of the country.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Spring, 1974), p. lvi.

Cormac McCarthy's Child of God … may be as remarkable for what it avoids as for what it achieves, but it's remarkable all the same. The word necrophilia has real referents in the world; no reason why it couldn't be a subject for fiction, and so it is in this tale of Lester Ballard, a hermit in the Tennessee hills who specializes in surprising lovers, murdering them, and making off with the female corpse. McCarthy's accomplishment is not to account for this insanity—we learn almost nothing of Ballard's past—nor to enter for very long the demented mind. Instead he composes a scene, in which it is possible to place horror without being gratuitously grotesque or—a worse possibility—inadvertently comic. He writes a lean prose alive to the natural world, speech, and to the tenuous civilization that fails to contain Lester Ballard. And he continually suggests that the worst depravity is not inhuman, merely the far end of the continuum on which we live. A tour de force. But an arresting novel.

Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), May, 1974, p. 128.

[In Child of God,] Lester Ballard destroys and is destroyed, but we have not a clue as to why. It is as if the author thinks his character is beyond scrutiny—possessed of a nature and a destiny that lead to the impersonal collisions of the Oresteia, rather than the exchanges and confrontations of our contemporary theatre; it is as if only when we learn to accept the mysterious and the terrible judgment of the gods do we come close to what wisdom is allowed us….

Cormac McCarthy resembles the ancient Greek dramatists and medieval moralists—a strange, incompatible mixture: Ballard blind to himself and driven by forces outside his control, and Ballard the desperately wayward one whose vagrant life is one day to be judged by God. Strangers like Ballard, errant outsiders who bewilder and sometimes brutally assault a community, remind those who shun them that a "child of God" can inexplicably become, in the imagery of ancient Greece, an instrument of the gods. Cormac McCarthy does not know why some men are haunted Ballards, while others live easily with kin and neighbors. He simply writes novels that tell us we cannot comprehend the riddles of human idiosyncrasy, the influence of the merely contingent or incidental upon our lives. He is a novelist of religious feeling who appears to subscribe to no creed but who cannot stop wondering in the most passionate and honest way what gives life meaning.

His characters are by explicit designation children of Whoever or Whatever it is that we fall back upon when we want to evoke the vastness and the mystery of this universe, and our comparative ignorance and uncertainty. His task is ambitious and enormously difficult—to tell his readers that we are not as knowing or in control of our lives as we assume. He cannot yet affirm with confidence life's possibilities. From the isolated highlands of Tennessee he sends us original stories that show how mysterious or confusing the world is. Moreover, his mordant wit, his stubborn refusal to bend his writing to the literary and intellectual demands of our era, conspire at times to make him seem mysterious and confusing—a writer whose fate is to be relatively unknown and often misinterpreted. But both Greek playwrights and Christian theologians have been aware that such may be the fate of anyone, of even the most talented and sensitive of human beings.

Robert Coles, "The Stranger," in The New Yorker, August 26, 1974, pp. 87-90.