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A Few Impressions

Cormac McCarthy’s 'Child of God'

Cormac McCarthy can be disturbing, but so is the human condition.

Image by Courtney Nicholas

It is Cormac McCarthy’s m.o. to uncover the underbelly of American history and explore some of the most violent and immoral acts swept under the façade of progress and civilisation. The cyclical recurrence of violence is his bass beat. I find that the epigraph for Blood Meridian says everything about the endless conflict between men that is ever-present in his writing:

Clark, who led last year's expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.



But even though violence, depravity and unending inhumanity are in ALL of Cormac McCarthy’s books, he is also a writer who has won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and is part of the Oprah Book Club. After his Tennessee Gothic period culminated with Suttree and he moved to Texas to write Blood Meridian, he began to nestle bits of humanity in between acts of chilling violence, offering a chord of hope that was rarely found in his earlier books. Take No Country for Old Men, which features the lamenting officer who makes us feel that at least someone is trying to do what’s right. Or look at The Road, which plants a tender relationship between a father and a son in the midst of a blasted, postapocalyptic landscape. With The Road, it was the book’s glimmer of hope – something McCarthy has attributed to the birth of his son – that contributed to the novel’s popularity, caught Oprah’s interest and made it transcend the postapocalyptic genre.

However, unlike the books of The Border Trilogy or The Road, McCarthy’s early work have no room for hope. They are immersed in darkness and violence, and then silence before they erupt in more pain. This bleak quality is certainly characteristic of Child of God, McCarthy’s third book after The Orchard Keeper and Outer Dark. Last year I directed an adaptation of Child of God. It just premiered at the Venice and Toronto film festivals to what I’m told are great reviews especially for my lead actor, Scott Haze. (Sadly, I can’t read any reviews about myself, even the good ones in the best outlets, because it’s like a drink for an alcoholic. I read one review about myself in The New York Times and the next thing I know I’m wondering what Perez Hilton thinks about my love life or what Just Jared thinks about my latest jacket.)


Child of God follows a man named Lester Ballard as he is evicted form his family home, goes to live in a hunting cabin, survives off the land and eventually starts sleeping with dead people – as in having sex with them. Finally, after his cabin burns down, he moves to a cave and is hunted down by the locals. Despite its grisly subject matter (the corpse-fucking) it is a great read and the movie is, I think, also strangely moving and entertaining. But there is that tough lump to swallow – sex with dead people. When I finally got to talk to my favourite living writer, Cormac McCarthy, I said, “I am going to be asked why I wanted to make a movie about this subject, so I’m going to ask you why you wrote a book about this subject.”

In a high, slow moving Southern drawl, he said, “Oh, I don’t know James, probably some dumbass reason [chuckle].”

I knew he was famous for not talking about his work, but I hate not getting answers. In art school, for better or worse, you learn to talk about your work, at least with other artists. “Well, I see it as a metaphor for, or an extreme example of isolation and someone who is pushed outside of civilised society. Lester just wants to connect, he wants to love and be loved, but he is incapable of being intimate with another (living) person because he’s a creep. But with dead bodies he gets to control both sides of the relationship. The fact that there is an actual body aids his imagination in the creation of another outside of himself. It all helps him believe that it is not just a solitary enterprise. He gets the best of both worlds: he gets to be in control of both sides of the relationship and he gets to trick himself into thinking that he is interacting with someone else.”

“Oh, I don’t know, James. I just know that there are people like him all around us.”


I guess what McCarthy meant on the phone is that Lester is a manifestation of the recurrent violence that flows through McCarthy’s oeuvre. But recurrent violence, or the portrait of a killer isn’t the only thing I read in the book, and it isn’t the only thing I tried to do with the film. For me it was a way to use shocking material (presented in a considered way) in order to talk about the human condition. There are no actual images in our film that are any more disturbing that seeing a city decimated in Transformers, innocent people being run over by the Rock in Fast and Furious 6, or hundreds of people destroyed from afar by General Zod in Superman – what is disturbing about our film is the context. But I want that disturbance, because it enables me to talk about the universal theme of needing love in a fresh way. And as Ezra Pound said, “make it new.”

Previously - 'Salò' Revisited