James Franco is on a Southern gothic roll these days–he’s set to release film versions of both Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. I’ve already read (and taught and worshipped) Faulkner’s masterpiece, but I’d never read this early McCarthy text, so thought I’d give it a go before the film hits the theatres. Here’s a quick review.
What the hay-ell? Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God is not a child of God but rather the spawn of a perverse orgy: Faulkner’s “Rose for Emily,” As I Lay Dying, Light in August, and Wild Palms meets Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs and, um, ok, even Graham Green’s The Third Man.
The book is about a depraved whack job named Lester Ballard, social outcast, itinerant, and, eventually, cave-dwelling, serial-killing necropheliac. This is dark, dark material—I recommend the book only to the strong of stomach.
Why does McCarthy write about such horrible stuff and why do I love it so much?
First, of course, his prose is so damned gorgeous, so lyrical, so much fun to read—“As they went down the valley in the new fell dark basking nighthawks rose from the dust in the road before them with wild wings and eyes red as jewels in the headlights.”
Moreover, McCarthy’s topics are painfully, powerfully earth bound—saturated in blood, “nameless crud,” sex, violence, death—yet also archetypal, far-reaching, ambitious, shimmering, and universal. Behold Ballard, mean as a badger, and we hate him, yet we also feel sorry for this child of God. His mother deserts him and his father hangs himself; little Lester himself finds his dad’s corpse, eyes bulging out of their sockets and tongue as “black as a chow dog’s.” Dirt poor, ignorant, dumber than a rock, reared in isolation without love, Ballard’s a wretched soul, both schizoid and probably schizophrenic. What does the world do with such a “misplaced and loveless simian shape,” God made yet God forsaken?
The novel follows Ballard’s pathetic attempts to navigate a world dead-set against him. We’re horrified by what he does but at the same time we root for his redemption, which comes, McCarthy style, obliquely. McCarthy writes of his poor protagonist, “Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them,” but, of course, McCarthy could have been describing his own fiction, black as pitch and best that way.