There are countless reasons to turn to the work of Cormac McCarthy, not the least of which are the astonishing beauty and originality of his prose, his synthesis of an entire civilization’s myths about itself, and his unerring insights into human psychology. One doesn’t typically turn to McCarthy, however, for the milk of human kindness. McCarthy’s outlook is as remorseless as the natural world, where survival of the fittest is the only rule that applies. There are exceptions, of course: The Road; parts of Suttree and All the Pretty Horses. And then there is Child of God, a disturbing novel with a fierce ambition. McCarthy does something nearly impossible in this book: he generates sympathy for and identification with—at least for a while, anyway—serial killer Lester Ballard.
McCarthy takes advantage of the reader’s tendency to identify with a book’s main character. The only way a sympathetic response is even possible is that we know Lester before he is a killer, and we see the role his accidental discovery of a pair of dead bodies plays in what eventually becomes a killing spree. The story is told retrospectively, after all the depravity has taken place, through the interwoven memories of a handful of townspeople around whom Ballard grew up. They see him as deeply disturbed, a man-child, nearly incapacitated by his mental deficiencies, his thoughts opaque and unknowable in the extreme, profoundly sociopathic and eventually psychopathic, but they never see him as anything but one of their own gone wrong. The memories of him they recall in attempting to come to grips with his monstrosity cast him as a repository of their shared and flawed history. Through their eyes, the reader begins to identify with him. It is as if their attention, good or bad, is enough to humanize him.