My personal history with the work of Cormac McCarthy is limited and rather unbalanced. I have friends who praise his name up one way and down the other, though I had, until recently, never really understood the hype surrounding him. I read The Road several years back and did not care for it. I felt it was fairly straightforward as stories go and altogether less than fantastic. I watched the 2013 film The Counselor which he penned specifically for the screen and thought that while the movie was executed well from a filmmaking standpoint, it was a pointlessly bleak story and not a film worth revisiting.
On the other hand, I do very much enjoy the Coen’s adaptation of No Country for Old Men, though that is hardly the same thing as reading the novel so I can’t speak much to the story in its original form. More recently, I read McCarthy’s short novel Child of God, published in 1973, and finally caught a glimpse of that greatness of which my friends so fervently speak.
Child of God is a brutal novel, appealing to my love for gritty Southern literature, but it is also beautiful and eloquent with many rich descriptive passages and profound lines of dialogue. McCarthy’s tone in this book is like a pitch-perfect blending of Faulkner’s observant, human-centric prose and the depraved sinful conduct and bloodshed performed by the characters of Donald Ray Pollock or Daniel Woodrell.
There were numerous moments that were exceptionally hard to stomach while reading, though not because the violence was described gratuitously or at length, but simply for the nature of the violence (or sexual act) itself. The central character is utterly despicable, deranged beyond measure, and wholly impossible to admire in any fashion, yet somehow he is completely fascinating in a way that fills the reader with a sort of dumbstruck terror and holds their attention for almost 200 pages (at least, it held mine). Reading Child of God is like glimpsing a horrifying slice of reality we had never dreamt was possible but one that could very well exist in a not-so-distant corner of our own country.
McCarthy makes the minimalist approach work to his advantage (a style that is challenging to do well), both in the forming of his characters and in the building of the novel’s environment. The lack of specific detail about a character’s appearance or mannerisms allows the reader to formulate a sense of the person that comes almost exclusively from the way they speak or the actions they carry out (Steinbeck had a similar way of forming characters through dialogue). That said, McCarthy is able to be very descriptive when he wants to be and when the moment suits it, crafting lengthy and carefully-worded sentences that have to be read more than once to be fully appreciated for their scope (for example, the sentence that opens the novel).
The argument could be made as to “what’s the point?” of a novel like this in which a deplorable person does monstrous things to others and more or less gets away with it, enduring only meager repercussions to the end of his life. This is the sort of book that will rub certain people the wrong way, or which others will simply not “get.” I can’t say that I understand the point of the novel perfectly either (and am not suggesting that it needs to have one), but that, like so many things, it was quite an experience to walk through and I was ultimately glad to have read it, though “glad” is probably not quite the correct word. I came out the other end having had something small and subtle confirmed in my mind regarding the nature of man and his tendency towards wickedness.