Saturday, November 21, 2009

CHILD OF GOD by Cormac McCarthy

Forget Bret Easton Ellis. Forget him completely. The real 'American Psycho' is this 1973 novel by Cormac McCarthy. Lester Ballard, McCarthy's "child of God much like yourself perhaps," is the frontier hero as psychopath, Natty Bumpo as necrophile, Huck Finn as transvestite serial killer. He's the classic American mountain man and pathfinder as refracted through the same blackened glass that will later show us that most nightmarish of all American Westerns, Blood Meridian. Lester Ballard's story is also the closest McCarthy has ever come to a psychological novel. Although Ol' Cormac has always been more mythographer than psychologist, and while characterization is not his strongest suit--and this book is no exception to either rule--Child of God does contain a compelling case study in the sexual psychopathology of serial killing. McCarthy cuts to the paradoxical core of Ballard's murderous desire: his need to have sex with a woman who is both dead and alive, who both exhibits a literal kadavergehorsamkeit before his god-like power and presents him with the warmth of living flesh. This is the paradox that makes him a serial killer: he murders repeatedly in a quest for the heat of the freshly killed. This desire, with its ideal, continued fulfilment always just out of reach, is also artfully underscored by the Echo and Narcissus motifs that McCarthy threads through the fabric of the novel. (And that I did not entirely catch on my first reading.)

One structural anomaly bothered me as I read. The novel begins with two alternating narrative voices: the lyrical authorial voice familiar from McCarthy's other novels, and a plainer, chattier, more rambling, cracker barrel storyteller's voice. This second voice, which contains the book's best humor, drops out at the end of Part One, presumably because McCarthy (or his editor) thought a comic counterpoint would detract from his progressively grimmer central narrative. I felt the loss of this voice in the book's second half. Perhaps Cormac wants us to feel its absence as his story goes completely insane.

I suppose it's now possible to divide McCarthy's work into three distinct periods. First comes the Southern Novelist who wrote The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, Child of God and Suttree. Next is the Western Novelist of Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy. And now in our current dispensation we have the Popular Novelist, the Pulitzered and Oprahfied and proxy-Oscared author of No Country for Old Men and The Road. I never thought I would see the author of Child of God in the audience at an Oscar ceremony, but there he was back in February 2008, sitting with his young son in the fifth or sixth row and pumping his fist when Javier Bardem's victory was announced. But surely the evening's most surreal conjunction came earlier, when McCarthy walked along the red carpet and passed just behind Regis Philbin. If those men had met, it would've been like matter and anti-matter colliding. 2012 would've come early.

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