Child of God is unlike any other book I have ever read. It was my first Cormac McCarthy novel and while I certainly plan on reading his other works, I will have to take a break and read something light before plunging into another one of his tales.
Child of God follows Lester Ballard, a young man living in the Tennessean Appalachian region. At the start of the story, Lester is kicked out of his home and subsequently out of society. He takes shelter in a shack in the mountains and tries his best to make it through each day. But eventually Lester’s strange lusts take over and he quickly becomes a terror to the town he was once a apart of.
Lester is an interesting character. Much like the people in town, I never really knew what to make of him and it was difficult trying to understand his actions. He is certainly complex and often times comes off as contradictory. He’s violent, but is also capable of being tender, though it happens in the most inappropriate times. There’s a scene towards the middle of the book, where he stumbles upon a naked woman who is also passed out. He wakes her up, which seems like a nice gesture. But the woman understandably becomes irate and Lester responds by knocking her into the mud and laughing while walking away. Of course, this simple scene would lead to Lester being accused of rape, though he is never charged. The town labels Lester as a nuance and it seems like he embraces that label and evolves, or rather devolves into a monster. And you can see this quite clearly in the middle of the story when he comes across two dead bodies in a car parked alongside the road.
The bodies, a man and a woman, died in a sexual position. It’s never made clear how they died, though that’s not important. What is important is Lester’s actions. When he first finds the bodies, Lester steals all of the valuables from the vehicle, before walking down the road again. But he pauses and wars with his two sides. On one side is the man who was a part of society, the civilized man. The other side was the man who lived away from civilization for a while, the one who followed his basic animalistic needs. And unfortunately, the animalistic side won. I won’t spoil what happens, but this scene is the most pivotal because after this, Lester continues to follow his basic needs, which leads to him performing some pretty gruesome and shocking acts.
I think the Appalachian Mountains were a perfect setting for this story. I’m currently doing research on the Appalachia for my own novel and one noteworthy aspect of this region is that many towns and communities are very isolated. Even in this day, many Appalachian towns seem to exist in their own bubble. There’s a lot of hiding spots and Lester makes use of these spots. Caves, thick forest areas, abandoned homes. Any place that has room to squat with a decent roof is open game for Lester. At times it seemed like McCarthy was having a bit of fun picking places where Lester could take settle or emerge from. But the environment is also important to the novel for another reason. The more time Lester spends outside of society the more his appearance and mannerisms changes. He starts to feel more and more at home in the mountains, only emerging when he is in desperate need of something. As Lester’s journey into madness continues, his choice in clothing becomes odder and odder and soon he seems almost like a wild beast on the prowl for unsuspecting prey:
“On a good May morning, John Greer turned out to dig a septic tank at the back of his house. While he was digging, Lester Ballard in frightwig and skirts stepped from behind the pumphouse and raised the rifle and cocked the hammer silently, holding back the trigger and easing it into the notch as hunters do…Even though Greer was shot through the upper chest himself he wobbled from the doorway with the shotgun and down the steps to examine this thing he’d shot. At the foot of the steps he picked up what appeared to be a wig and saw that it was fashioned whole from a dried human scalp.”
Lester Ballard is a stranger character, but at the end of the day he is still a human; “A child of God much like yourself perhaps.” It’s easy for us to read Lester’s tale and see him as a horrendous person, but McCarthy makes it clear that this could happen to any of us if we’re put into a similar situation. Lester was cast out of society and no one seemed willing to help him. Lester does things that are nearly inconceivable to the human mind, but he’s still capable of feeling emotions. There are a few tender moments in the story and there are times where Lester breaks down and cries. Child of God can be difficult to get through at times; some of the scenes are hard to stomach. But the violence in the story is a reflection of the violence we are all capable of. This is a book worth reading and re-reading over and over again because it offers so much insight into humanity and how living outside of society can alter us in a negative way.