Lester Ballard, main character of the novel Child of God, commits murder, necrophilia, sexually harasses women, and is generally considered to be crazy. This being a novel by Cormac McCarthy, the most shocking thing about him is none of these. Rather, it is the suggestion that he might still have dignity, like anybody else, and it is this tension between his dignity and his debauchery that drives the novel.
Ballard deserves to be detested. Even as a child, he was prone to fits of unexpected violence, which alienated him from other children, and as adult, he has not improved. To pick a few of his sins, he is a voyeur, he kills women in order to bring their bodies home and violate them, and he makes wigs out of their scalps.
However, somehow, he earns sympathy. The clearest instance of this is when he goes to the fair and wins prizes at a shooting booth. Being a fantastic shot, he wins three prizes in short order, even with the booth’s manager trying to cheat Ballard by saying that Ballard’s perfect shooting is still not good enough. Finally, the manager invents a new rule, that three prizes is the limit, in order to keep Ballard from continuing to play. Now, even though it would have been gracious for Ballard to not try to clean the booth out of prizes, the reader still does feel indignation on his behalf because of the manager’s dishonesty.
Similarly, we discover that as a child, Ballard discovered his father’s corpse after his father hanged himself. After this event he “never was right.” As the narrator says, “The old man’s eyes was run out on stems like a crawfish and his tongue blacker’n a chow dog’s I wisht if a man wanted to hang hisself he’d do it with poison or something so folks wouldn’t have to see such a thing as that.” Upon hearing this description, one can easily understand how it might have affected the young boy, and so one feels some sympathy for him.
Why can we feel such sympathy for a man who deserves to be thoroughly despised? It is because Ballard is introduced as “a child of God much like yourself perhaps.” This phrase does more than simply humanize Ballard (not that being “humanized” makes much difference in McCarthy’s world – humans do some very evil things in his stories), and it also does more than connect him to the reader by their sharing a relationship with God. It provides Ballard with a mysterious dignity that, while certainly may be squandered, cannot be lost. In In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, says
Each human being, however wretched or exalted he or she may be, however sick or suffering, however good-for-nothing or important, whether born or unborn, whether incurably ill or radiant with health – each one bears God’s breath in himself or herself, each one is God’s image. This is the deepest reason for the inviolability of human dignity.
While Ratzinger does not use the same phrase as McCarthy, he still explains why being a child of God offers this dignity that Ballard cannot lose. Because Ballard bears the image and likeness of God, because he reflects the love that creates and sustains creation, one can be indignant when he is wronged or cheated. This has nothing to do with any goodwill that Ballard might earn, but is inherent in his nature. As a he is a person, it is quite simply wrong to cheat him. To quote Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.”
Even though Ballard is introduced as a child of God, the question of his origin, and indeed, the origin of human depravity in general, haunts the story. Even before we know that he is a child of God, we know that he has Saxon and Celtic bloods in him, highlighting his human genealogy. Therefore, is Ballard from God or from man, or more importantly, is his evil from God or from man? That Ballard has dignity indicates that he must be from God, but what about his sin?
Speaking about the Ballard family, which has a history of shadiness, deceit, and antisocial behaviour, we are told that while “you can trace em back to Adam if you want,” Lester’s depravity outstrips them all. On one hand, the Ballard family in general practically seems to have been evil from the very beginning, and passed it on to Lester, but on the other hand, Lester’s evil seems to have come from nowhere, even while it has precedent.
The tracing of the Ballard family invokes the legacy of original sin. The sin of Adam, which separates him from God, is passed down through human history. In this sense, Ballard’s sin is by no means unique; while he is a child of God much like yourself, he is also a child of Adam much like yourself. Along these lines, there is an old woman who sees Ballard’s crimes as a judgement on the sins of the community, to which an old man tells her that “everbody in Servier County would have to be rotten to the core to warrant this.” The man raises this as an objection, because surely the entire county could not be so corrupt. He does not realise that yes, the entire county has indeed inherited this corruption. Ballard is certainly exceptionally evil, but not uniquely evil. We hear tales of incest, see the booth manager at the fair cheat Ballard, the community lifts not a finger when Ballard’s shack burns down and he lives in a cave, and the congregation at the church he attends shuns him. The community has its share of guilt.
Ultimately, Ballard belongs to what the narrator calls “a race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it.” Humanity, according to this view, does not cull from itself those who are unworthy to live and pass on their genes. It shows mercy to the damaged, embraces the imperfect, and assimilates them into the fullness of human life, because who among us would meet that standard of perfection? One could trace the human race back to Adam and find that “wrong blood” in every generation. The fact that Ballard is still permitted to live, that this wrong blood is still present, is the defeat of utilitarianism, of the idea that Ballard must prove his worthiness to live by his ability to contribute productively to society.
Even though the novel effectively attributes Ballard’s corruption to original sin, it still surpasses the corruption of all those around him. He is exceptionally tainted. It is tempting to try to trace his evil to its so-called “root causes,” such as his broken family and ostracisation, but this would be to belittle just how strange it is, even in a world of broken families. His evil is not simply the result of worldly problems, or psychological imbalances, but is a profound spiritual illness. Evil, being a lack of the good instead a thing opposed to the good, does not have a rational explanation that can be summarily rooted out, and so Ballard’s depravity must always remain a mystery. After he dies, his body is dissected so that students can examine the monster, but in the end, this examination can offer no explanations for his sin. It is an evil that cannot be understood, and so he is a person “you cain’t do nothing with.” Indeed, as Jillian Kay Melchior says, “McCarthy excels at creating villains who embody profound evil — their motives are irrelevant, and their actions will never quite make sense to the other characters, or the average reader, for that matter.”
A chance for a good life?
Even though Ballard might have been corrupted since conception, he is not ultimately destined to do evil, much as some around him might say he is. At the end of the story, after having been shot, losing an arm, being removed from the hospital by a mob to lead them to the bodies of his alleged victims, and then escaping the mob, he returns to the hospital, saying that he is supposed to be there, and he remains institutionalised for the rest of his life. This return is the most surprising twist in the entire story; as much as I dreaded the mob taking Ballard out of the hospital, where he was unable to prey on the community, he still returned to it, for some strange reason. While the hospital is not a paragon of charity, it is still a place where his needs are met, unlike the town which takes his land and lets him live in a cave when his shack burns down. Even if the questions he asks are ignored, his dignity is more recognised here than anywhere else, and so he is drawn back. He realizes his brokenness, and therefore returns to where he will be nursed, if not healed and and made able to thrive.
With Child of God, McCarthy presents an incredibly challenging example of human dignity. Ballard is not worthy of that dignity, but possesses it nonetheless. Is McCarthy offering a reducto ad absurdium of Christian belief, saying that the logical consequence of this belief is that even the worst monsters must be loved? This is, of course, one of the most scandalous of Christian beliefs. Or is he genuinely showing the light in the darkness, saying that even Ballard can earn our sympathy and indignation? The margins may include (no pun intended) people who have been shunted there through no fault of their own, perhaps because the whole of the county is corrupt, but they also include people who are truly unable to fit in anywhere else. It is the latter who are the true challenge to charity, and in Child of God, we find the most unromanticized image of this possible.