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Cormac McCarthy: Child of God

Whatever their failings, and they have many, McCarthy’s heroes can often be said to elicit our sympathy. Such is not the case with Lester Ballard, a depraved and violent man, given to murder and necrophilia. Were there darker provinces of night, he would have found them. However, despite his crimes, he is a child of God much like yourself, McCarthy tells us when we first meet him. Indeed, when we first meet him, it is at the auction of his farm, which he tries to break up violently but is, in his turn, violently prevented from doing so. He moves into an abandoned cabin, an outcast from society, driven to watching courting couples and masturbating, as no-one wants him. Finally, a whore falsely accuses him of rape. When he gets out of jail, it is a rapid descent, starting with the finding of a dead couple and indulging in necrophilia with the girl, to murder. When winter ends and the bodies are found, the law is on the case. Ballard goes after the man who bought his farm but is shot and wakes up in hospital. His arm is missing but he seems almost unconcerned about the fact, only wondering what they have done with it. But a mob kidnaps him and demands that he show them where the bodies are. He takes them to the caves where he had been hiding but manages to elude them but he himself gets lost and, when he emerges, returns to the hospital and life – and death – in asylum.

McCarthy gives a superb portrait of how a man can slowly slip into depravity (Ballard has had a pretty lousy life, including finding his father’s body after the latter had hanged himself, when a child), slipping away from the protection of society for a combination of reasons, some his fault and some, perhaps, not. The ironic title and McCarthy’s gloss on that title make it clear that the message is There but for the grace of God go I.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Random House