It’s disturbingly easy to find books and movies about non-sympathetic, inbred hillbillies indulging in depraved acts of violence, necrophilia, etc. The Hills Have Eyes, American Gothic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre brood, and on and on and on and on. And I’d be surprised (and a bit unnerved) to meet anyone who really hopes the mutants will come out on top by story’s end.
Now, writing one of these characters in a way so that they almost…almost…almost become sympathetic is a pretty dazzling highwire act. Enter Cormac McCarthy who almost does it in the short novel Child of God.
McCarthy is no stranger to depicting horrific events, but most of his books don’t come anywhere near straight-up horror. Child doesn’t quite, either, but I think it’s close enough to talk about.
It’s the story of one Lester Ballard, a man driven into increasing isolation for reasons I won’t spoil for you. He’s an uneducated man, living on the fringe of his society, squatting wherever he can find shelter. Little by little, he’s pushed out further and further. He doesn’t have any parents. He isn’t really connected to anything or anyone. He’s incapable–which is revealed by degrees as the novel progresses–of normal human relationships. It just doesn’t work.
He’s lonely. He’s uneducated. He wants to be accepted, but he’s not, and he won’t be, and so we get the final half of the novel.
I’m not going to give you more details, but I’ll never forget the imagery from his hideous when some concerned citizens finally figure out what he’s been up to.
I still think of it every time I’m at an amusement park.
I don’t want you to get the impression that the book is a bloodbath. It’s not. In fact, even in books like the blood-soaked Blood Meridian, McCarthy doesn’t linger on the violence. Descriptions are terse and before you know it, something horrible has come and gone. I think this can make it even more disturbing.
Wherever you stand on Bret Easton Ellis, one thing he does very well is to render the most heinous acts in a completely affectless manner, but with excruciating levels of detail.
McCarthy can be just as affectless, but you don’t get much by way of detail.
Anyway, Child of God is a decent introduction to McCarthy and a truly creepy tale.
I’m very happy that it’s almost October. This is my favorite time on the blog.