Saturday, June 13, 2015

What Child Is This?

Just as I was leaving Rollins College’s Spanish Mediterranean halls of academe in the mid ’90s, it was believed that Cormac McCarthy would one day earn a coveted spot in the literary canon, which used to exist.
(The canon, sadly and ironically, was cannonized into oblivion in a brief but ugly battle between English professors who believed it was the foundation on which their profession rested and those who saw it as a watery, nebulous, amorphous social construct. Harold Bloom allegedly suffered a minor flesh wound during the skirmish, but has continued to go all Rambo on the attackers, cranking out bellicose books years after the surrender.)
Because I was too busy reading other books, I had not read McCarthy back then. And that’s too bad because he would’ve fit perfectly into a course I taught called “Writing Like a Man.” If there’s any such thing as a man, and a man’s ethos, and a man’s style, and a man’s subject matter, then Cormac McCarthy writes like a man.
So after many people strongly urged me to get with it and read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), I caved in and read his Child of God (1973).
Holy crap!
Now I know what it must've been like to watch Psycho in the context of 1950s movies and not have any idea what Norman Bates meant when he said his mom was "not herself today." On first reading McCarthy, you find a writer boldly going where you probably never want to go.
So let me warn you not to read the book. If you do, however, let me warn you that, once you get halfway through the first sentence, you may not want to put it down.That’s what happened to me, anyway. 
I learned within the first few pages that if I want to visit East Tennessee, I should stick with tourist spots and chain stores. Based on Child of God, if you go up in those hills, or even get off the main roads, you’re just asking for it.
The cockroach who leads you through this abandoned house of a book is Lester Ballard. This unwashed, malevolent dirt-bag has shown up in literature any number of times, but he’s never before been so foul. Jim Morrison sang about him in “Riders on the Storm” in 1971: “There’s a killer on the road / His brain is squirmin’ like a toad.”
He’s Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit without the glasses or the rhetoric. Anonymous Scop called him Grendel in Beowulf, and called his mother Grendel’s Dam.Like Grendel, he’s the angry outsider never invited into the Mead Hall to throw back some brewskis with the boys. We first see him at a communal event (his property is being auctioned off) watching the festivities from a barn door, already relegated to the animal kingdom. Deprived of his place, he becomes the archetypal Wandering Gentile, searching the mountains for food, shelter and devilment, with no place to rest his head.
He does all the stuff paranoid mothers picture when their kids are unsupervised.
For most chapters, McCarthy keeps a nosy, unfiltered camera on Lester’s plundering, in others he gives us brief backwoods-gossip accounts of Lester, his past, and his ancestors’ antics. While he keeps Lester doing what people like Lester do, he describes the world around him with exquisite poetry, a beautiful blend of the sophisticated, gemlike, vivid, precise language of the Creator-God author occasionally blurred in perfect harmony with rural Tennessee dialect. That, incidentally, is called free-indirect discourse.
The use of radiant prose to describe sordid events, on the other hand, is called “Sewage in an Urn,” or something like that.
I suspect McCarthy has often been compared to William Faulkner, the Nobel-Prize winning Southern novelist. Both, for example, love to use poetry to explore the things that crawl out from under rocks in the Southern woods. Both suggest Southerners have a river of violence flowing through their veins. Both, like the Anglo-Saxons, James Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins, are fond of joining words at the hip to create new words (Faulkner's "pinkwomansmelling" comes to mind). Both wrote books for James Franco to film: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a pretty good rendering, and McCarthy’s Child of God, which showed Lester’s nastiness without the veneer of art. Both are comfortable describing questionable sexual partnering. (Note to self: Enter last sentence into “Understatement of the Year” contest.)
Faulkner and McCarthy differ in that the latter doesn’t attempt to reach the former’s thunderous, epic, operatic style. When Faulkner describes a woman sitting down – Rosa Colfield in Absalom, Absalom!, for example, he could well be describing the Gotterdammerung.
They also differ in that McCarthy takes degradation places Faulkner would’ve never dreamed of in his worst bout of delirium tremens. Why would he do this?
 For one thing, his Lester Ballard represents an object of our primal fear. I know little about the Puritans, aside from their invention of Spring Break, but in literature about them, anything outside their settlement, their little theocratic village, scares the bejeebers out of them. What has not been tamed by their religion must spring from the Black Man, must be in compact with Satan.
Step outside their village limits and you enter the Dark Forest, where Blake’s Tyger lives, right next to the witch’s gingerbread house, where the trees grasp for Snow White, where . . . well, you get the picture.
Most of us are no longer Puritans, but we feel pretty uncomfortable about the stranger on the road. If he has not joined us in society’s domestication process, how can we trust him to curb his desires, to show the restraint we’ve been conditioned to show? How can we trust him not to have desires we’ve never imagined, and desires – esp. as seen in Child of God – we had hoped to get through our entire lives without even considering?
So don’t read this book, even though it does a good job of rousing that fear, of disturbing your sleep, of making you uneasy, and making you a little more embarrassed than usual for being a human being. But if you do read it, try not to think of how, in some way, people who have so much money and power that they soar above our provincial values and our middle-class morality, act an awful lot like Lester whenever they feel like it.
Finally, about a century before Child of God, Irish playwright and professional celebrity Oscar Wilde asserted that “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. A book is either well written, or badly written. That is all.” McCarthy’s beautifully written novel is an excellent test case for Wilde’s aphorism.
As someone who has been reading great novels for roughly 55 years, I believe Child of God is undeniably a finely crafted work of art but takes you down so deeply in the morass of human mischief that you have to look up to see the Ninth Circle of Dante's Inferno. 
Oh, but what the hell, it's just a book. Well written, and that is all.

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