Discussed in this essay:
• The Orchard Keeper, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp.
• Outer Dark, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 256 pp.
• Child of God, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $13.95. 206 pp.
• Suttree, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 480 pp.
• Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 352 pp.
• All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 320 pp.
• The Crossing, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 432 pp.
• Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 292 pp.
• No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.00. 309 pp.
• The Road, Cormac McCarthy. Vintage. $14.95. 287 pp.
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Outer Dark and Child of God
But before we get there, there are the rest of McCarthy’s early works. McCarthy followed up The Orchard Keeper with two novels that, though decidedly less ambitious than his first, are more existentially profound and emotionally resonant for their sharper focus and greater coherence. They are also the darkest novels in all of McCarthy’s works, ones inhabited by men who commit acts that are despicable by any meaningful measure. Although Blood Meridian will feature men that impassively participate in genocide, in these books McCarthy seems to be transgressing limits that have greater potential to shock. The banal evil that he will undertake in later works does not strike the same taboo chords as in these two novels.
Outer Dark opens with the birth of a child that is the product of incest. Culla, the father, promptly attempts to add filicide to his incest when he deposits the child in the woods to die. The action of the book consists in two searches: the mother Rinthy’s search for her lost child and Culla’s search for Rinthy.
McCarthy’s second novel is much more of a fable than anything else that will come before The Border Trilogy. It is a book very distanced from any discernable place or time; all we can be sure of is that we are in the mountains of Appalachia. McCarthy has never been shy to integrate folklore into his novels, but in Outer Dark he is more free than usual with these touches: in one odd aspect among many, Culla is tailed by three strange creatures given to things like cannibalism and grave-robbing; they occasionally attempted to force Culla to account for his choices. Just as Sylder sealed his fate by choosing murder early in The Orchard Keeper, in Outer Dark the fates of the two protagonists seem to be sealed when Culla chooses to abandon his child. His pointed statement that “a man makes his own luck” must be contrasted with the novel’s unwinding tragedy, which seems unavoidable.
As Culla and Rinthy chart their fateful progress through a thick and impenetrable wood, Outer Dark seems to become a metaphor for the existential world that McCarthy’s characters are forced to inhabit. Whereas in other works the surrounding chaos and darkness must be inferred from circumstance, in Outer Dark it feels embodied, as though McCarthy sought to give life to and being to the very feelings that we generally must imagine his characters are experiencing.
Outer Dark is also notable for having what is likely the strongest female character in a career that has been unfortunately thick with patriarchy. McCarthy’s tendency to treat women as mere devices to further the plots of men could be fairly compared to the tendency of that other great American writer Philip Roth. And although Rinthy fails to rise beyond the shadow of her brother-protagonist, she is created for more strongly and becomes far more interesting of a character than most other women in McCarthy.
Women do not fare nearly so well in McCarthy’s third book, Child of God, which is perhaps the most disturbing book in an oeuvre that does not lack for the grotesque. It tells the grisly story of Lester Ballard, a mentally disturbed man who escapes a mental asylum, is pushed to the fringes of his community, and eventually comes to inhabit a system of caves along with the corpses of women he has murdered and then kept as sexual partners. 1
Whereas Culla has Rinthy and his three beings to counterpoint him, in Ballard we have the absence of morals altogether, a character who neither knows limits nor seems to recognize others as humans like himself. It is no exaggeration to say that Ballard tests the borders of what we consider human. Notably, McCarthy marks him as abnormal by clearly establishing his psychological derangement at the beginning. No other character in McCarthy’s novels enters this rarified terrain. Although certain characters appear to represent pure evil, they all at least recognize the fact of right and wrong, and none is declared mentally impaired. Only Ballard seems to entirely lack any sense of morality altogether—to be given the status of “damaged.” And yet, like a challenge McCarthy throws his humanity right in our face: the book’s title, after all, is Child of God, and McCarthy reminds us of Ballard’s status on page four when he calls Ballard “a child of god much like yourself.”
It is curious, to say the least, that such an areligious author as McCarthy (although one who loves to quote the bible) would put God in the title of a book or so clearly place the action therein within the purview of a creator. Without getting bogged down in questions surrounding McCarthy’s spirituality, McCarthy’s invocation of God points to the important fact that Child of God, like most of his other novels, embodies a sense of wholeness, a breaking down of both the bifurcations between the natural and the human and the divisions within human society. Though he sees these borders as significant, McCarthy always recognizes that they are mere human contrivance. By breaking them down McCarthy better represents his characters’ existential confusion as they comprehend the fact that borders are merely human constructs: when our attempts to categorize the world are undermined, we are forced to confront the grotesque; that is, the fact that the world is fundamentally unknowable. All we can say with certainty is that we are children of God; anything more precise is merely a functional contrivance. In Child of God McCarthy establishes this fact quite clearly, and it is an idea that he will interrogate more thoroughly in The Border Trilogy.
Although Ballard eludes police attempts to capture him, he finally chooses to return to the asylum of his own free will. Although this moment is understated in the text, it is one of the most important choices made by any character in any of McCarthy’s books: Ballard has chosen humanity, and he is accepted into human society (that is, a padded cell). Society’s admission of Ballard’s humanity is cemented upon his death: once he dies a natural death, Ballard’s body is offered to science for medical study—not as a curiosity but rather as just another cadaver that medical students will learn from. In the end, the fact of Ballard’s radically atypical mind is deemphasized, and the one thing that most intimately unites him with his fellow humans—his body—registers his humanity. Although Child of God raises the possibilities of a fundamentally unknowable world, and of a curiously humdrum human existence beyond the boundaries of good and evil, it ends by reminding us that by virtue of our bodies we are united. In that way, it offers slightly more hope than the ending of Outer Dark, which does not allow for any possibility of a return home. Together, these novels present a bleak picture, one that is heavily fraught with themes of great existential alienation and overt imagery of an isolating world in which we are forever lost. They consider the status of all humans by looking at ones on the species’ farthest fringes.
After Child of God we reach the highest expression of McCarthy’s early style . . .
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