I'll tell ye what old Gresham done when his wife died and how crazy he was. They buried her up here at Sixmile and the preacher he said a few words and then he called on Gresham, ast him did he want to say a few words fore they thowed the dirt over her and old Gresham he stood up, had his hat in his hand and all. Stood up there and sung the chickenshit blues. The chickenshit blues. No, I don't know the words to it but he did and he sung em ever one fore he set back down again. But he wasn't a patch on Lester Ballard for crazy. (p. 24-25)
Before he became renowned for Western-themed works such as Blood Meridian or All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy wrote several novels set in East Tennessee. In his third novel, Child of God, published in 1973, McCarthy explores human deprivation and depravation through the actions and thoughts of Lester Ballard. It is a chilling read, seeing the depths to which Ballard sinks, but beyond that, there is that sense that through the violence, through the sexual deviance, that Ballard represents humanity in its most wretched and primeval state.
Child of God is set in the mountains of Sevier County, Tennessee during the mid-20th century. It is, even today (minus the garish Pigeon Forge and scenic Gatlinburg), a remote, rough region, replete with mountain men similar to those portrayed sinisterly by James Dickey. Lester Ballard, who is only 27 when the novel begins, is evicted from his own home as it is auctioned off while he was still living there. Driven out of his domicile (suffering a blow to the head in the process), Ballard retreats further into the wilderness, metaphorical and real alike. Viewed with suspicion by the Sevier County sheriff on account of his family past (Ballard had kin who were in the quasi-KKK White Caps around the turn of the 20th century), Ballard's isolation from human society is accentuated during a scene a quarter of the way into the novel where he is locked up in the county jail and his only companion is a black man in for a fugitive warrant:
They had a nigger in the cell opposite and the nigger used to sing all the time. He was being held on a fugitive warrant. After a day or two Ballard fell into talking with him. He said: What's your name?
John, said the nigger. Nigger John.
Where you from. You a fugitive ain't ye?
I'm from Pine Bluff Arkansas and I'm a fugitive from the ways of this world. I'd be a fugitive from my mind if I had me some snow.
What you in for?
I cut a motherfucker's head off with a pocketknife.
Ballard waited to be asked his own crime but he wasn't asked. After a while he said: I was supposed to of raped this old girl. She wasn't nothin but a whore to start with.
White pussy is nothing but trouble.
Ballard agreed that it was. He guessed he'd thought so but he'd never heard it put that way. (p. 51-52)
This little scene, before Ballard begins his final, crazed descent represents several of the themes McCarthy explores in Child of God: the outcast fugitive, the reduction of rape to a cipher for human violence, the lingering sense that there is a perverse commonality in this greeting between a murderer ostracized for his race and an accused rapist who has already been cast out of home and hearth. McCarthy's eschewing of traditional punctuation in this novel works especially well in scenes such as this, as the perceived boundary between the unnamed third-person narrator and the character dialogues blend together to the point where it feels as though Ballard were speaking to that "fourth wall" as much as to the character of Nigger John.
The latter parts of the novel become more haunting because of this narrative device. As Ballard retreats to a troglodyte condition, emerging like a cave troll to ambush, kill, and then fuck the corpses of young women (with a repeating pattern of encounter and type occurring within this descent into murder and necrophilia), there also emerges strange, touching (and yet simultaneously sickening) scenes such as Ballard's trip into town after the first such event:
How much is that there red dress out front, he said.
She looked toward the front of the store and put her hand to her mouth for remembering. It's five ninety-eight, she said. Then she shook her head up and down. Yes. Five ninety-eight.
I'll take it, said Ballard.
The salesgirl unleaned herself from the counter. She and Ballard were about the same height. She said: What size did you need?
Ballard looked at her. Size, he said.
Did you know her size?
He rubbed his jaw. He'd never seen the girl standing up. He looked at the salesgirl. I don't know what size she takes, he said.
Well how big is she?
I don't believe she's big as you.
Do you know how much she weighs?
She'll weigh a hunnerd pound or better.
The girl looked at him sort of funny. She must be just small, she said.
She ain't real big. (p. 96-97)
As the novel moves toward its conclusion, Ballard's alienation from society becomes more and more clear. A reclusive necrophiliac murderer, his thoughts and desires are revealed in a clarity that is disturbing for how closely they resemble our own thoughts of release. Whereas Ballard might seek comfort in what is to us ghastly and reprehensible things, readers might come to see dim reflections of themselves in the straightforward, earnest way in which those thoughts are presented to us. It is as though despite one's own moral codes, Ballard's case is so pitiful, so sympathetic underneath the horrific actions of his life that the reader, just as a key character comes to do late in the novel, might find herself subconsciously feeling sorrow as well as revulsion toward Ballard.
Child of God may not be McCarthy's best novel (his later, Western novels further develop the symbiotic relationship between violence and human morality), but it certainly contains most of the key elements that are developed more fully in Blood Meridian and other latter novels: the sparse yet haunting prose, morally challenged characters whose plights capture the reader's attention, and well-developed settings that infuse the stories with distinctive local colors. Child of God works best when the reader struggles against his or her own preconceptions in order to understand just who Lester Ballard is. Disgusting as his actions might be, Ballard is never a character cipher but instead a complex being whose humanity becomes the center of a story that lingers on far after the final page is turned.