I just tore through Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Child of God’. I can’t think of the last time I stayed up to finish a book, let alone read it in one sitting.
It’s a deeply disturbing portrait of a serial killer, Lester Ballard, that aims to make him a sympathetic character while in no way making us feel any less for his victims.
Often in books and films when an author or director wants us to feel for a murderous protagonist they will make those he kills unlikeable or flawed.
McCarthy doesn’t let himself off that easy. His victims are innocents who don’t deserve the cruelty and barbarity inflicted on them by Ballard. Yet Ballard is strangely innocent too.
He is lonely, ugly, stupid and uneducated but still has burning desire to relate to another human being. Unfortunately, the only humans that want to stick around are the corpses of those he’s murdered.
It’s not as if he is the only cruel thing in this bleak southern landscape. In one of the most horrific scene in the book, he gives an idiot child a robin. This act of kindness results in the child biting off the legs of the bird in order to stop it leaving him.
Anyone hoping to rely upon the kindness of strangers in this world will be waiting a hell of a long time.
It will come as no surprise that the author of ‘The Road’ should create such a bleak place. Nor should it come as any surprise that the book is beautifully written. Not in an overly elaborate or showy way but with economy and grace of a master storyteller.
The description of Ballard’s death is particularly poignant. It’s so matter of fact it’s almost as if an animal has died rather than a man.
A minor masterpiece by a major literary force of nature.