Child of God

by Cormac McCarthy

Paper Book, 1993




New York : Vintage Books, 1993.


Falsely accused of rape, Lester Ballard is released from jail, and a trip to the dry-goods store, an errand to the blacksmith, and other incidents are transformed into scenes of the comic and the grotesque.

Media reviews

But the carefully cold, sour diction of this book--whose hostility toward the reader surpasses even that of the world toward Lester--does not often let us see beyond its nasty "writing" into moments we can see for themselves, rendered. And such moments, authentic though they feel, do not much help a novel so lacking in human momentum or point.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Oandthegang
Having to date been a great fan of McCarthy I was surprised by how much I disliked Child Of God. Initially I was enjoying it - the trademark McCarthy language, the jokes, but then at some point the seemingly pointless squalor and visciousness of it all got to me. I could cope with the violence, the necrophilia (though I hoped my fellow commuters were not reading over my shoulder), the slimy rotting corpses, but it was the cruelty to animals which did for me - primed fire crackers shoved into living pigeons, and finally an incident with a giant idiot baby and a robin. With this last incident I just thought 'What is he thinking of? What goes on in this man's mind?' With a sort of horrified fascination I reread the passage a number of times, wishing I had never read it in the first place.

The novel opens with the auctioning of a farm, watched by the mentally unstable son of its former owner. He orders the auctioneer off the land, threatening to shoot him, but the auctioneer deals him a blow so savage that "Lester Ballard never could hold his head right after that. It must have throwed his neck out someway or another. I didn't see Buster hit him, but I seen him laying on the ground. ... ... He was laying flat on the ground looking up at everybody with his eyes crossed and this awful pumpknot on his head. He just laid there and he was bleeding at the ears. Buster was still standin there holdin the axe. They took him on in the county car and C B went on with the auction like nothin never had happent but he did say it caused some folks not to bid that otherwise would of, which may of been what Lester set out at, I don't know. John Greer was from up in Grainger County. Not sayin nothing against him but he was." Greer buys the farm and Ballard takes up an increasingly feral life in the local woods and hills.

Child Of God is a short book which would be best read at one sitting. Not only would that provide the opportunity to sink into the beauty of McCarthy's language, but it would probably give greater impact to Ballard's descent into total madness. I read it in bits over a number of days. There is a slightly odd structure in that the third party narrative is occasionally interrupted by short chapters in which unidentified locals talk to one another, sometimes about Ballard, sometimes about the Sheriff, sometimes just yarning. The narrative intermittently shifts to follow Sheriff Fate and his deputy. I feel that at some level there is a foreshadowing here of the structure of No Country For Old Men, a much later and more satisfying work, albeit far more mainstream. As the book progresses it seemed more akin to a shlock horror movie, glorying in grotesque goriness, seemingly with no other point.
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LibraryThing member fuzzy_patters
For those unfamiliar with McCarthy's writing, the comparisons to Faulkner are obvious. Both eschew standard punctuation to create a feeling of oral story telling, and both treat their story's settings almost as another character that affects the characters in the story. In Faulkner's novels, this character is rural Mississippi, while in McCarthy's it is rural Tennessee in his earlier novels and the American southwest in his later novels. Child of God is from his earlier period and takes place in Appalachian Tennessee, where McCarthy grew up.

Child of God centers around Lester Ballard, a deranged, degraded human being who, although created by God like the rest of us, commits some of the worst crimes imaginable and completely loses all human dignity. Yet, McCarthy makes Ballard the protagonist in his story and one gets a sense of a poor man who has lived a hard life that has all culminated in eventual insanity. Ballard goes through everything from watching his father hang himself as a child to being falsely accused of rape. All of which serve to propel him to become the monster that he becomes.

As is typical with McCarthy, the imagery of the book jumps off the page. You can not only picture rural Appalachia in your mind's eye, but you can smell it and feel it, too. This is one of McCarthy's great strengths as a writer, and he is a writer deserving of our admiration for his brilliant skill.

I would not recommend this book to anyone who is squeamish or easily turned off by morally degrading subject matter. The book includes descriptions of things like hanged human bodies and necrophilia. However, it is a remarkable book and nearly as good as some of McCarthy's best works like The Border Trilogy, Blood Meridian, or The Road.
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LibraryThing member Hagelstein
Lester Ballard has lost his property and home to the county and is forced to live in the woods and survive on his own. He becomes a purveyor of violence. Falsely accused of rape, Lester is released and proceeds to do worse, much worse. He’s a tortured soul, but “given charge Ballard would have made things more orderly in in the woods and in men’s souls.”

Cormac McCarthy writes about nature and violence with opposite approaches and a skill matched by few others. His descriptions of nature and the rural environ of East Tennessee serve to bring the setting to life. As descriptive as his world is, the violence that tears into it is short, sharp, matter of fact, and sometimes twisted. It is also economically doled out to intensify the impact on the story. His way with dialogue and succinct descriptions of people add up to a thoroughly satisfying novel.

William Gay picked up on McCarthy’s style and ran with it on his own, but McCarthy really has few peers.
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LibraryThing member samfsmith
Draw a line from William Faulkner through the midnight dark of the human soul and at the end of it you will find Cormac McCarthy, picking over the bones of murderer and murdered, like some oracle seeking the truth of the ways of man and god. McCarthy’s god is, at best, indifferent. At worst, malevolent and sadistic.

This is the story of Lester Ballard's descent into hell. Ballard is a piece of work, a real child of god. McCarthy tells it in stark and simple prose with black humor. Ballard, with the cunning of all men, learns to take advantage of his situation, preying, like the "Son of Sam" murderer, on lovers parked in cars along lonely mountain roads. In his depravity, Ballard takes advantage of the dead female bodies.

No one can tell stories of this kind better that Cormac McCarthy. After reading it I felt depressed and blue for days, wary that a sadistic god would laugh when I was struck down by some depraved child of god.
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LibraryThing member Dogberryjr
Child of God is a stunning piece of writing. McCarthy quickly settles the reader into deep Appalachia and spins a tale of exclusion, poverty, evil and perversion like none other I've read. It would have been easy for this book to slide into a Stephen King-ish tale of simple macabre, but McCarthy manages, through his careful prose, to mingle suspense, horror and deviance into an incredible story.… (more)
LibraryThing member technobrarian
This is McCarthy at his southern gothic best.
LibraryThing member SarahEBear
"Child of God" by Cormac McCarthy. Lester Ballard is a simple minded, country man, with limited intelligence, an over-abundance of rat cunning and a psychopathic violent streak. With his florid descriptions McCarthy allows the reader to see into the mind - what limited functioning there is - of this unlikeable individual. What is most frightening is the absence of any real emotion (other than anger) or empathy for or understanding of others. Powerful and disturbing.… (more)
LibraryThing member donkeytiara
more haunting visions from my literary hero... in the right hands, the ugliness of the human soul can be a beautiful story....or is that vice versa???
LibraryThing member NativeRoses
A community's response to a man's descent into isolation, insanity, murder and necrophilia. This McCarthy stands apart from others i've read in that the focus stays on people's relationships with each other rather than civilization vs. nature. Even so, McCarthy plays with the idea of what constitutes natural/unnatural desires. By titling the book, Child of God, we are encouraged to understand the urges of a murderous necrophiliac.… (more)
LibraryThing member goddamn_phony
That kid at school who always had a runny nose and a rash around his mouth from licking his lips, and he smelled funny, and used to eat out of the bin and expose himself to other kids...he grew up and Cormac McCarthy wrote a book about him
LibraryThing member whitewavedarling
Disturbing and dark, but incredibly engaging. Don't touch this is you've got a weak stomach or can't take taboo subjects, but I'd recommend this one highly. I'd also suggest going into it without much knowledge (if any) of what it's about.
LibraryThing member ncnsstnt
Cormac is a freak. Such dark and nasty characters... however, I do think that Thomas Harris might have lifted some ideas for his killer in 'Silence of the Lambs' from the guy in this book.
LibraryThing member jpporter
The book is nasty, brutish and short. Everything Thomas Hobbes could want to show what life in a state of nature would be like. The main character - Lester Ballard - gets my vote for being the most despicable characterization of a human being imaginable; yet, in some way, McCarthy seems to want, at some level, to create some sense of sympathy for Ballard.

McCarthy's works tend to be blunt, uncompromising (and frequently unsympathetic) looks at humanity - the sort of stuff one doesn't want to acknowledge - that hit too close to home to be comfortable. He has an eye for precision in his narration that is stark, uneasy, yet - in its own way - quite beautiful.

This may not be a book for everyone, as some parts approach the absolutely disgusting. But if you want to experience real American literature as few other authors dare present it, Child of God may be a masterpiece.
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LibraryThing member crazybatcow
It's a very fast read. I think it is typical McCarthy - morbid, dark, easily-read. It is not nearly as good, or as dark as I had expected. The reviews said it involved rape... but it doesn't. The reviews indicated that it's about poverty and etc driving a man to become less than a man and it's not that either.

It's about a crazy man, living an impoverished life in a by-gone era - the poverty didn't necessarily make him crazy - maybe he already was or would have been regardless. And the book is impoverished in empathy - we don't feel sympathy for him because he is portrayed as little more than an animal, just scrabbling up enough to survive. We don't even feel very revolted by his behavior because it's so 'matter of course.' And we don't even get the satisfaction of a just resolution in the end.

All in all, we aren't led to care.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
This is truly a horrifying novel. The subject matter of a crazed killer is not something that I would normally be drawn to, but quite honestly was drawn by the title although I knew this wasn't going to be a walk in the park having read "Road" and "No Country for Old Men." For me, this was the best.

The writing in this book is so gripping. McCarty paints a terrifying picture of Ballard yet without preaching, moralizing, or sympathizing, the reader gets a tiny glimpse of an understanding of what allienation and isolation can cause in an individual and in a society. The scene of Ballard bringing the wounded bird to the pitiful child and the child's reaction is one of the most gripping I have ever read.[The situation was reminiscent of a situation in "Gilead" by Marianne Robinson[[ASIN:031242440X Gilead: A Novel] Likewise, the description of Ballard watching "the diminutive progress of all things in the valley, the gray fields coming up black...Squatting there he let his head drop between his knees and he began to cry." It takes a very skilled writer to believably bring out that thread of humanity in such a deprived character.

This is not a pretty book and certainly not a pleasant read, but one that needs to be read by anyone who questions who is really a child of God.
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LibraryThing member powervich
An honest portrayal of a deranged man. McCarthy has managed to write another beautiful book, not letting a series of horrid events stand in his way. The power of his writing mirrors the meaning of the words themselves to form a coherent question, however dark and unanswerable that question may be.
LibraryThing member pessoanongrata
McCarthy takes the grotesque tradition, heads out the back, shoots it with a shotgun and pisses all over its corpse. McCarthy does not flinch, does not turn away from what is awful in our world. He writes what he sees in it and what he sees is Lester Ballard, a child of God much like yourself. Depraved and hilarious and perfectly phrased. Masterful.
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LibraryThing member hampusforev
To call Child of God Cormac-lite might be a bit misleading, it's as dark and twisted as any of his other works, with incest-produced idiot offspring and violent encounters with man's dark nature. But it is an easy read, without being particularly diligent I read this in three days. The prose is very good as always, shifting narrative voices and keeping a balanced, stark and poetic language. Cormac sparkles the work with some of his sinister humour and I found myself both grinning and grimacing throughout the novel. What I love about McCarthy's characters is the authors complete unwillingness to resort to any pseudo-psychology or freudian events in the character's past to explain them away. They exist just as is, which pervades them with a mystical profundity without Cormac having to do much, I don't know how he pulls it off really. But to give it more than a four would be too much, it might grow, but it might also fizzle away without leaving much of a mark... Only time can tell.… (more)
LibraryThing member poetontheone
This lean slab of prose is a dark and gripping ride along through a man's descent into degradation. McCarthy's sparse writing style is the perfect communicator of the book's lurid subject matter. This story seems to convey the frailty of man, how infelicitous circumstances can lead him to fall into moral quicksand if his eyes do not account for his steps. Treading blindly through the mad nettles of life, how easily he can be stripped of that which makes him human at a fundamental level.… (more)
LibraryThing member lanewillson
Reading Cormac McCarthy is often trying to cross a familiar, busy, four way intersection with when the lights aren’t working. There is a mixture of the ordinary daily banal with a sense of surprise and danger. No quotation marks, and other grammar ticks make the reading feel strange and unfamiliar. This sense of never quite feeling comfortable is almost another character in McCarthy’s Child of God.

Ballard, the main character, draws sympathy, and even admiration as a homeless man working to care for himself as best he can. This is quickly followed by revulsion as he violates humanity. The story then seems fueled by the question of whether Ballard is insane or evil. Neither description offers shelter, and in each there is a place where one can see themselves. To my mind this is what makes Child of God so powerful.
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LibraryThing member icedream
I can't think of the last time I read a book that repulsed me so much while still keeping me absolutely captivated. I'm not the kind of person who wants to rubberneck while passing a car accident but I guess when it comes to reading this McCarthy novel I am doing the literary equivalent.
I can't help myself, I think McCarthy's writing is so brilliant in it's simplicity. The descriptiveness of his writing is so vivid that I have a mini-movie going on in my head every time I read his books. Child of God was a horror movie.
It is the story of Lester Ballard; a troubled, uneducated man on the fringe of society at the beginning of the novel. Through the book a series of circumstances occurs that lead Lester deeper into isolation and gross depravity. I mean seriously gross depravity! Yet McCarthy manages to keep Lester, well I can't say sympathetic but somehow almost animalistic, stripped down to base emotions that I found I couldn't bring myself to rise to the level of righteous indignation that his actions deserved.
I love a book that begs for serious discussion and that is what McCarthy has done with this book. With Lester's character I see a repulsive character in his manners and his behavior that by far passes anything close to acceptable human behavior. Yet McCarthy calls him "A child of God much like yourself perhaps" right from the beginning of the book just so that statement would stick with me through out the story and kept me shaking my head no, how could Lester be a child of God?
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LibraryThing member Matt_Sessions
A lean, jet-black character study.
LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Clearly one of the great writers of our generation! Meet Lester Ballard of east Tennessee....ignorant, impulsive, impoverished, isolated, emotionally needy, and....innocent....primitive predator.....and child of god? I think Lester is McCarthy's everyman. It is painful to follow his tracks in this story, primarily because he acts out all that is uncivilized, unsocialized, and dark about being human. Not easy to read because Lester is not easy to love, yet I loved the character and the story.… (more)
LibraryThing member homericgeek
Coming to this book, I knew only that the main character, Lester Ballard, had some strange ways, but I didn't know how strange until several chapters into the book. It is an interesting read; McCarthy has a way of making it seem dream-like: broken up, but still flowing together. I'm not sure that makes sense, but that's how it reads to me. He kept the chapters short, most being only a single scene: some shorter, some longer. The short chapters coupled with Lester's bizarre behavior keeps you turning the pages, not to mention the "need" to know what happens....

There is a strong link to mythology in most of McCarthy's work and this book is no different. There are trips to the underworld, shape-shifting and tragedy among other motifs.

Without giving away too much, I will say that this book is not for the faint of heart. If Nabokov's Lolita bothers you, then there is a possibility that this will, too. It isn't exactly the same as Lolita , but the deviance of Lester, the main character, is very pronounced as is that of Humbert Humbert. But, in the case of Child of God, Lester is not the narrator.

I wonder if you could still call Lester a protagonist? He does change, but not much. The reader gets the sense that he is depraved right from the beginning. It's the level, or depth, of his depravity that changes.

The writing itself will not disappoint fans of McCarthy. His prose, as always, is tight and musical; the critics like to call it poetic, which it is. It damn near sings. I give it four stars simply for the prose. The content gives me pause; that's not to say that we should ignore it, it's just more unsettling than a book with a happy-go-lucky attitude and a bright happy ending. McCarthy almost never has happy endings and this is no exception. He does have "just" endings on occasion, or endings in which those who deserve it get it, if you get my drift.

I will read it again, simply because I love McCarthy's writing and want to learn from him. If I were reading it as a reader only, once would be enough--maybe more than enough.
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LibraryThing member nbsp
Wow, such economy of words. A beautifully written tale of horror.


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