Saturday, 15 October 2011

Child of God

Child of God - Cormac McCarthy

"he turned and shook the rifle alternately at the flooded creek and at the gray sky out of which the rain still fell grayly and without relent and the curses that hailed up above the thunder of the water carried to the mountain and back like echoes from the clefts of bedlam."

At once futuristic and ancient, Child of God presents a story of disquieting horror dwarfed in a frame of wild nature and timelessness. Centre stage is Hank Ballard, a tin man whose clockwork is damaged yet inexorably drives him on. He is empty, unreflective as water in a pitch black cavern, and like that water he flows ever downwards. He is evicted and the first scene is a carnivaleque auction of his house and land, where while attempting to halt the sale he winds up knocked unconscious by an axe.

Nature acts as a gothic proscenium arch, described with a harshly poetic eye. Chopped up cars act as chicken coops and junk and wreckage litters the roadsides and rivers.
"Ballard, a misplaced and loveless simian shape scuttling across the turnaround as he had come, over the clay and thin gravel and the flattened beercans and papers and rotting condoms.
You better run, you son of a bitch.
 The voice washed against the mountain and came back lost and threatless. Then there was nothing but silence and the rich bloom of honeysuckle on the black midsummer night air."
There is a sense of being lost in the tens of thousand of years of evolution, the "simian shape" an echo of man's past, the voice of judgement "washed" by the mountains.

The book consists of a series of short episodes. Some are as old memories in a documentary, some address the audience directly and others inhabit Hank's mind or operate as standard third person narration in the present tense. These multiple perspectives and timeframes serve to prefigure the horrors to come in the book but also to distance them. They are at once happening but have also happened and are receding into story and myth.

We watch Ballard  "Going up a track of a road through the quarry woods where all about lay enormous blocks and tablets of stone weathered grey and grown with deep green moss, toppled monoliths among the trees and vines like traces of an older race of man. The rainy summer day. He passed a dark lake of silent jade where the moss walls rose sheer and plumb and  a small blue bird sat slant upon a guywire in the void." The present tense seems to me to be linked with the "small blue bird". It is "in the void". The stones are compared to monoliths and tablets, suggesting both prehistory and the Ten Commandments, both now broken detritus of the past, as the NOW of this narration soon will be.

In one scene Ballard tries to trade his knife for some moonshine.
"After a while Kirby came back but he didn't have any whiskey. He handed Ballard his knife back. I cain't find it, he said.
Cain't find it?
Well shit fire.
I'll hunt some more later on. I think I was drunk when I hid it."
It may be speculative but for me the buried repetition of Cain (in cain't)  in this scene and the failed attempt to give up his knife chimes with the idea that mans tainted legacy cannot be got rid of, played for laughs.

The subject of the 'mark of Cain' comes up more explicitly later in the book. "You think people was meaner then than they are now? the deputy said.
The old man was looking out on the flooded town.
No, he said, I don't. I think people are the same from the day God first made one."

Links are made back to the bloody crucible from which arose Ballard's country, the lynching gangs whose criminal and bloody form of order is called for by some to bring the county to order.
"Here's a man can tell ye about the White Caps, said the sheriff.
People don't want to hear about that, said the old man.
Cotton here said it sounded like a good idea to him, the sheriff said. Keep people in line.
The old man studied the rowing deputy. Don't believe it son, he said. They was a bunch of lowlife thieves and cowards and murderers. the only thing they ever done was to whip women and rob old people of their savins. Pensioners and widows. And murder people in their beds at night."

Ballard hasn't sprung from nowhere. He is risen from "A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it."

Child of God is a powerful, unsettling novel which propounds that people such as Hank are part of humanity, always were and always will be. It reminds us that even the most horrific crimes are dwarfed and forgotten by time. At one stage, Ballard's death underground where only mice and insects would share his deathbed is imagined.
"He heard the mice scurry in the dark. Perhaps they'd nest in his skull, spawn their tiny bald and mewling whelps in the lobed caverns where his brains had been. His bones polished clean as eggshells, centipedes sleeping in their marrowed flutes, his ribs curling slender and whitely like a bone flower in the dark stone bowl "

This reflects Ballard's own, more disturbing, congress with the dead. There is much between these covers that many would prefer to pretend doesn't exist, or doesn't want to think about. If you feel that way, maybe you should avoid this. If not this is a great novel.

Reading it, I was reminded of Nick Cave's debut novel And the Ass Saw the Angel which has a similar protagonist and a similar faux biblical turn of phrase, and was clearly influenced by this.

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