Jack’s Naughty Bits: Cormac McCarthy, Child of God

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Jack's Naughty Bits

It’s a longstanding philosophical (and religious) question what we humans do from choice, and what we are fated — or programmed — to do. I’ve never been a big believer in predetermination or destiny, and even Noam Chomsky’s claim that we are all hardwired for language has always seemed rather implausible to me. When the argument turns to sex, however, I find myself much more available to the idea that we are all born with some basic blueprint — and perhaps even with our particular tastes.


Whether we are natured or nurtured is not an idle question by any means, and the implications change depending on what specific sex practice or predilection you’re talking about. Most people tend to think that sexual extremists, like pedophiles, are born with their leanings (though it is also argued that child porn encourages them along); with other sex offenders, it’s not so clear. Is one born a rapist, is one led to rape or is it, in some measure, a choice? It’s hard not to think that it’s a combination of all of the above. Sexual orientation is another tricky issue: it is often thought of as something we’re born with, though there are arguments both ways (thus, the Christian Right’s “de-programming” centers for homosexuals). Atypical tastes, like fetishes or SM, raise questions of their own. Sadomasochistic play has become quite mainstream, but still I wonder if there aren’t serious players who would say that SM is not an option but a necessity. Is that necessity inborn or acculturated? Hard to say.


Cormac McCarthy’s haunting early novel, Child of God, brings these questions to a head in its portrayal of the mental disintegration of adolescent protagonist Lester Ballard. Lester starts out a little weird, then moves off into the woods by himself and slowly begins to lose it. His relations with the fairer sex don’t go particularly well — to say the least — and he soon learns, at first by accident, that the newly-dead are not as hard to deal with as the living, breathing and resisting. Was Lester born a necrophiliac or did his disastrous encounters with women and slipping mental health turn him into one? In the scene below, Lester comes upon a car where a young, copulating couple have mysteriously died. The possibilities dawn on him gradually, but irrevocably. Was he destined?

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From Child of God by Cormac McCarthy

He didn’t even swear. He knelt there staring at the two bodies. Them sons of bitches is deader’n hell, he said.


He could see one of the girl’s breasts. Her blouse was open and her brassiere was pushed up around her neck. Ballard stared for a long time. Finally he reached across the dead man’s back and touched the breast. It was soft and cool. He stroked the full brown nipple with the ball of his thumb.


He was still holding the rifle. He backed off the seat and stood in the road and looked and listened. There was not even a birdcall to hear. He took the squirrels from his belt and laid them on top of the car and stood the rifle against the fender and got in again. Leaning over the seat he took hold of the man and tried to pull him off the girl. The body sprawled heavily, the head lolled. Ballard got him pulled sideways but he was jammed against the back of the front seat. He could see the girl better now. He reached and stroked her other breast. He did this for a while and then he pushed her eyes shut with his thumb. She was young and very pretty. Ballard shut the front door of the car against the cold. He reached down and got hold of the man again. He seemed to be hung. He was wearing a shirt and his trousers were collapsed about the tops of his shoes. With a sort of dull loathing Ballard seized the cold and naked hipbone and pulled him over. He rolled off and slid down between the seats onto the floor where he lay staring up with one eye open and one half shut.


They godamighty, said Ballard. The dead man’s penis, sheathed in a wet yellow condom, was pointing at him rigidly.


He backed out of the car and picked up the rifle and walked out to where he could see down the road. He came back and shut the car door and walked around the other side. It was very cold. After a while he got in the car again. The girl lay with her eyes closed and her breasts peeking from her open blouse and her pale thighs spread. Ballard climbed over the seat.


The dead man was watching him from the floor of the car. Ballard kicked his feet out of the way and picked the girl’s panties up from the floor and sniffed at them and put them in his pocket. He looked out the rear window and he listened. Kneeling there between the girl’s legs he undid his buckle and lowered his trousers.


A crazed gymnast laboring over a cold corpse. He poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of saying to a woman. Who could say she did not hear him?

© Cormac McCarthy