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Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Child of God (1973)

by Cormac McCarthy

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1,790493,914 (3.82)119
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    The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (Bridgey)
    Bridgey: Both deal with a small town psychopathic killer

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The novels of Cormac McCarthy are not exactly cheerful, uplifting books – in the contrary! This author is exploring human loneliness and isolation, depravation, and extreme violence in his work. The subject matter that leaves little to no space for any hope, consolation or redemption contrasts with a prose that is sparse but frequently very poetic. As a reader, I therefore feel usually quite wrought out after I finished one of his books, but at the same time I have the impression that I read something very remarkable and even beautiful. Very few authors leave the reader with such contradicting feelings.

My latest try with a McCarthy book was Child of God, his third novel and published before his devastating masterpieces Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men, and The Road. And it is again confirming what I said in the above paragraph.

Lester Ballard, the main character, grows up in a small town in East Tennessee (the region in which McCarthy grew up) in the 1960s. Although his family seems to have lived in the area for generations – his grandfather was obviously a local Ku Klux Klan leader, and his father committed suicide by hanging himself – the boy is socially rather isolated. Already during his childhood he shows a violent, sociopathic behavior. After he loses his small farm and serving a prison sentence because he is threatening potential buyers of his former property with his rifle, he returns to his home region. He starts to live as a squatter in a dilapidated cabin, lives on stolen corn or squirrels and other prey he is shooting, and is considered as at least half crazy by the people in his home town.

Ballard is shown as practically unable to lead a normal conversation or to interact adequately with others. A conversation between Ballard and a smith who is sharpening an old axe for him is almost comical, but it is Ballard’s complete lack of ability to make a normal contact with women, that will have disastrous consequences for him.

The remainder of the book shows how the main character sinks deeper and deeper in isolation, degradation, even perversion. The social degradation and decline corresponds with a moral one and even a physical one: from squatter to cave dweller to prisoner; from voyeur to necrophiliac to serial killer; from healthy young man to mutilated prisoner to dissected corpse – this is the path Lester Ballard is going. And yet, he is

"A child of God much like yourself perhaps."

Although the main character in this book is not a man most of us would be keen to meet, McCarthy is describing him with sympathy and understanding. If Ballard would have ever had a positive experience with others, if he had got as a child at least a little bit human warmth and support, he might very probably never turned out to be the person he became.

McCarthy is also a compassionate storyteller. The men who threaten to lynch the already crippled Ballard if he is not leading them to the corpses of his alleged victims, are full of blood lust and sadistic pleasure in their (self-)righteous endeavor, and as a reader we rejoice probably quite a bit when Ballard succeeds in escaping (temporarily) his tormentors.

The author is using different perspectives – some chapters are told from the viewpoint of neighbors of Ballard – and he is using spoken language for the dialogues which are given without quotation marks, a method that takes a little bit time to get used to as a reader.

What is it with Cormac McCarthy and the women? I cannot recall any remarkable female character in his books (at least the ones I read). Also in Child of God, the women are marginal figures, mainly victims of men. Not that he is particularly misogynistic, but this virtual absence or marginal role of women in his works is rather strange and I have no real explanation for it.

It would be not true to say that I have enjoyed this book. Too unpleasant, violent and full of graphic descriptions of human depravity is this novel. It is not McCarthy’s best book, but still an important step on the way to the mature masterpieces of his later years. ( )
  Mytwostotinki | Mar 19, 2016 |
There is no doubt that McCarthy can write, and write incredibly well. However, for me, this story was just too dark and too cruel. I was glad it was short, was glad to be done with it. Yes, I know that darkness is a hallmark of McCarthy, but I can still love some of his writing, especially The Road.

Ballard was not a nice man even before he lost his home and began living in the woods, but he devolved into a complete animal -well, not true; that doesn't give enough credit to animals. His predilections became perverse and painful to read, but still, there was for me, a disconnect with his victims. The cruelty in the book was overwhelming, and there were some very disturbing animal cruelty scenes as well.

The ending was something of a letdown. It felt hurried and anticlimactic. But then again, I was just glad the book was done.

I listened to an unabridged audio version, and the narrator was excellent. ( )
  TooBusyReading | Feb 16, 2016 |
A chilling look at an isolated, disrespected man who descends into murder and necrophilia. That said, I find it oddly more compassionate and less reactionary than McCarthy's most recent novels (The Road, No Country for Old Men). McCarthy's brilliance at capturing setting with a few well-chosen details, and his skill at reproducing realistic dialogue are on full display here. Not an easy read, but a rewarding one: where does evil come from? Aren't we all "children of God"? ( )
  bibleblaster | Jan 23, 2016 |
If it were not for the excellent writing style, I would classify this in the genre "horror". Perhaps this might be "literary horror".
Set in the "hills" of Tennessee (could have been in North Carolina or West Virginia) McCarthy describes the lives of people living close to the earth in terms of economic survival. The populace in general possess a level of education based on common sense skills related to daily survival. There is a level below the general populace that might be described as feral. That is where Lester lives.
Feral Lester can use technology; he has a comparatively expensive rifle which he values above all, especially people; further, he is a good shot. Lester does nothing more than he has to do to satisfy basic shelter, clothing and food needs. To satisfy basic sex impulses, Lester finds greater compliance with dead girls than with the living.
This is an engrossing story told in complex, descriptive vocabulary. Some thoughts and feelings ascribed to the characters are expressed in vocabulary far beyond the capabilities of the characters to use. This engages the reader, provokes a lot of thought beyond the printed page, and will occupy the reader for a greater length of time to read than such a short work would normally take. ( )
  ajarn7086 | Jan 23, 2016 |
Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the literarily respectable set. If you enjoy well-written novels with pulpy plots that treat the dirt poor as metaphors for the urbane reader's id, here's your allegorical necrophiliac hillbilly.

Two stars because I liked the chapter with the axe sharpener. ( )
  middlemarchhare | Nov 25, 2015 |
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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.

» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Cormac McCarthyprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gustafsson, KerstinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679728740, Paperback)

"Scuttling down the mountain with the thing on his back he looked like a man beset by some ghast succubus, the dead girl riding him with legs bowed akimbo like a monstrous frog." Child of God must be the most sympathetic portrayal of necrophilia in all of literature. The hero, Lester Ballard, is expelled from his human family and ends up living in underground caves, which he peoples with his trophies: giant stuffed animals won in carnival shooting galleries and the decomposing corpses of his victims. Cormac McCarthy's much-admired prose is suspenseful, rich with detail, and yet restrained, even delicate, in its images of Lester's activities. So tightly focused is the story on this one "child of God" that it resembles a myth, or parable. "You could say that he's sustained by his fellow men, like you.... A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:18:08 -0400)

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Falsely accused of rape, Lester Ballard is released from jail, and a trip to the dry-goods store, an errand to the blacksmith, and other incidents are transformed into scenes of the comic and the grotesque.

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