I stayed up until midnight last night reading Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. The book tells the story of a 27 year old man to whom life has not been kind. His mother hightails it when he is very young and his father commits suicide and the book opens with him losing his land to a bank auction. Lester threatens to shoot the auctioneer rather than see his land sold to the highest bidder, but when he raises his rifle, some guy named Buster hits him in the head with an axe from behind.
“Lester Ballard could never hold his head right after that.”
It’s an astonishing book it’s its own right, but particularly interesting to me, for two reasons.
First, the book accomplishes an act of turning that almost defies comprehension. Lester is just an awful person, and as the story proceeds, he becomes more and more awful. And yet, with every act of inhumanity, McCarthy succeeds in reminding us that no matter how wretchedly Lester behaves, he is still, in fact, a person. Lester does something chillingly brutal and in the very next sentence, he is suddenly a shivering young man, lost in a world that doesn’t want him and won’t help him.
To say the book is an emotional experience would be a massive understatement. The book moves from terror to sadness to revulsion to compassion, all in the span of a single paragraph, and every action is painted with words that are as brutal as the moments they depict.
This won’t spoil the book for anyone, but consider the following passage, describing hound dogs chasing down a wild boar:
The boar did not want to cross the river. When he did so it was too late. He came all sleek and steaming out of the willows on the near side and started across the plain. Behind him the dogs were falling down the mountainside hysterically, the snow exploding around them. When they struck the water they smoked like hot stones and when they came out of the brush and onto the plain they came in clouds of pale vapor.
I think the book is an important one because it reminds us that no matter how incomprehensibly people behave, no matter how atrociously or how difficult it is to understand another person’s motivations, they are, and remain human beings. It doesn’t help to create monsters out of people. All that achieves is to frighten us like children. It is far more important to try and understand how and why people descend into madness, and to take actions to both defend ourselves and help those teetering on the edge of the abyss.
I won’t pretend to have any answers, but I would encourage others to always try and see the humanity of even the most depraved people. After all, when we grapple with monsters, we risk becoming monsters ourselves.
The second thing that McCarthy’s writing makes stunningly obvious is how rarely we hear authentic, masculine, powerful language, either spoken or written in Western culture. The great political and military leaders of the past did not hesitate to choose strong language and powerful words, but there has been a sea change in public discourse, with queasy mumbly-speak becoming the norm, and always, always, an attention to “politeness”, which is of course, defined principally by women.
Art, literature and poetry have all fallen under the malign spell of “political correctness”, and the poems and novels and sculptures of today are evaluated for their political content (Is it racist? Is it heteronormative? Is is homophobic? Blah blah blah), rather than being evaluated on simple artistic merit.
(ha ha –that’s a joke –obviously art is not simple to define, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible)
McCarthy isn’t polite. His writing is rude and crude and beautiful and powerful and he does not shy away from describing acts of depravity that might make you feel a bit ill. He rejects the politically correct and instead describes a human being, twisted by circumstance and accident into a man few of us could admire, none of us would want to be, but whom all of us can pity.
When art and culture are circumscribed by trenchant ideologies of left/right or feminist/Marxist, we all suffer in measurable, quantifiable ways, but mostly, we end up with shitty literature and nothing decent to read on the weekend.
Reach for Cormac McCarthy. He might make you long for men who speak and act and talk like men. They bring something powerful and moving and deeply emotional to the conversation. Something no mealy mouthed politically correct ideologue can possibly imitate.
“He is small, unclean, unshaven. He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of god much like yourself perhaps”.
Lots of love,