Brad’s #2: Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy is among my favorite contemporary authors.  He has an uncanny ability to explore the depths of human frailty and depravity while still crafting a true piece of art that is to be awed and admired for its beauty.  Not many authors can paint such vivid portraits of humanity with so bleak a palette.  In this short yet powerful work, McCarthy paints with his bleakest palette. 

Child of God defies, perhaps more forbiddingly than any other work in McCarthy’s magisterial corpus, the fashionable impertinence which not infrequently inspires the facile elicitation of ideological structure from his text. Besides having, among living writers of the English language, the strongest claim to deferred mortality, McCarthy’s most unassailable works — Blood Meridian, Outer Dark, and Child of God — are, for their predestined readers, a stringent and edifying disinfectant against the sterile prevailing trends of literary criticism.” (From an Amazon.com review).

Such an effusively pedantic review is inappropriate for a book that is amazingly spartan in both words and plot.  Yet, I understand where the reviewer is coming from in trying to capture the essence of the story.  I started this review in January.  This story is difficult to explain; a mere description of the events would elicit wonder as to why one would read such a book and why such dark and pointless novel was even written.   However, such a description would fail to show how it deftly probes the darkness of the human soul while simultaneously providing a pointed critique of what happens when a society ignores its fringes.

It is the story of Lester Ballard; a man moving from the margins of society into outright abandon of all of the restraints that societal pressures and government create to hold back the horrors of mankind.  It is an utterly bleak and shocking book that brought me to the brink of not finishing it on multiple occasions.  However, McCarthy’s skill managed to keep me unconfortably on this precipice for the entire length of the novel.  Mercifully, it was short. 

In telling the tale, McCarthy often employed a disjointed structure in which a chapter would drop you in the aftermath of one of Ballard’s heinous acts, providing no context to understand what happened.   It would then be followed by a chapter that flashed back to provide the setup to the act and the act itself.  In a way, it is a perverse take on the serial killer novel.  By utilizing the disjointed structure and showing the acts from the perspective of the serial killer, McCarthy eschews manipulating the build up of tension and sucks any entertainment value  from the story; by approaching it this way he implicitly scolds the reader for the pulpy enjoyment that may have been experienced had the story been told in the traditional thriller fashion.

I cannot recommend this book.  It is extremely dark and downright revolting in the subjects that it covers.  However, I must make it clear that this book is not to be categorized among the modern movement that revel in shock and depravity as a gimmick — McCarthy is not Chuck Palahniuk.  Rather, it is a deft exploration into the depravity that the human being is capable of apart from regeneration through Christ, just a bit to accurate to warrant reading.

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