Cormac McCarthy’s Children of God

Having just re-read McCarthy’s Child of God, I find myself trying to piece together some overarching consistency to his work. What I discover is that declaring him a champion of the oppressed is too simplistic, as is the more common epithet that McCarthy is a fake Faulkner. But McCarthy’s work is more subtle and complex than either description. He does portray those trapped at the squalid end of our nation’s extremes, but he doesn’t elevate his characters to a position of dignity.
In Child of God, Lester Ballard is thrown off his land for some unknown reason, suffering mentally from a blow to the head gained in trying to prevent eviction. McCarthy’s point here is that Ballard’s increasing depravity is primarily the product of his own character, and not necessarily of oppressive circumstance. This strange person takes to shooting young women, carting them to his hidden lair, having sex with the cadavers, thereafter interring them in a cave on slabs of stone. Ballard is eventually caught, escapes a lynching, returns to the hospital, and ultimately goes unpunished, except for permanent commitment to a mental hospital. He dies there, his body turned over to a medical school for student dismemberment.
That his cadavers are laid to rest on slabs of stone in more than accidentally related to Ballard’s own body being dissected on a medical student’s table. Throughout his works, McCarthy is more poet than polemicist. He seems taken with the violence prevalent in almost all human endeavor, and by implication the manner in which such violence is willingly embraced. The violence spoken of here isn’t necessarily that of war, revolution, or other political catharsis. Instead, McCarthy sees violence in the wanton disregard for significant segments of society by the rest, whether by chauvinism, racism, or other impulses to exclude. It’s important to note that we are not asked to blame society for such depravity, at least not directly. Instead, we are to realize that the violence from society’s lower castes is a manifestation of that which exists within other social layers, simply trickling downward to those less capable of self-defense. Violence here is not judgment but simple fact. But the ultimate implication is that such venality is justified by many people’s version of an unruly, deranged God, who orchestrates and rules through such behavior.
In this light, McCarthy’s work gains apocalyptic preeminence in the American literary canon. Even the eloquence of his prose, juxtaposed with his precise rendering of Southern vernacular, speaks of the disturbing disparity between what we wish and what we will to be so. I believe McCarthy is asking us, in whatever way we can, to see Lester Ballard as a child of God. Inverting the term in this way makes it possible for us to see a humanity in which each of us is inseparable from the rest, each a mirror of our worst aspects as well as our best.

Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky

I looked forward to reading this book for a couple of reasons. First, I have an interest in World War II history, and this was to be one more perspective on that six-year drama as it played out in Europe. Second, my current passion is modern European literature – modern being that following World War II.
My first hope for this book came to fruition. I had never read a book portraying the manner in which civilian lives were caught up in the ugliness of that war. Nemirovsky’s portrayal of the French, albeit of the Post-Versailles upper class, proved poignant, her characters sometimes in deep denial of the German invasion, sometimes petty and exasperating, at others acting in the most noble manner possible.
The writing, while not the best Europe offered during her era, reminds of Dickens in places, in others of Tolstoy and Pasternak. In certain of these passages, Nemirovsky’s prose seems as vivid and charged as Victor Hugo’s. But it suffers in two unfortunate ways. Nemirovsky wrote these novellas during a brief period following the Nazi invasion of France before she was taken to Auschwitz. Consequently, they had little benefit of authorial editing, and none from a second pair of eyes, as Charles Scribner provided for Hemingway. Still, she managed to write a moving, topical story under great duress.
Perhaps the most unfortunate twist to this late-blooming manuscript is it appears to be a somewhat clumsy translation. This is arguable, and if I’m wrong, I apologize. But whatever the cause, Nemirovsky’s prose seems overwhelmed to the point of monotony by the narrator’s tone.
But you have to remember: European literature between the world wars was in transition. Nemirovsky’s writing here clearly shows the influence of nineteenth century writers, as well as some of her era’s experimental traits, traits we now regard as normal fictive technique. And it was probably her being caught in this phase transition that caused the writing to seem lacking in “normal” stage directions, i.e., inconsistently orchestrated.
It’s always intriguing to wonder what might have become of such a writer if allowed to develop. Sadly, this wasn’t possible in her case. But she did leave us with an undeniably heroic, gutsy attempt at portraying the paradoxes and outright confusion of war from the perspective of those who didn’t – and couldn’t – fight. For this we should be immensely grateful.

Howling about Howl

As promised: my view of “Howl” Fifty Years Later – The Poem that Changed America, edited by Jason Shinder.
The first thing that makes this book a treasure is a 1956 mimeographed copy of Allen Ginsberg’s manuscript. Even if you own an original copy of the City Lights edition of this work, this photocopy is so quaint as to be touching. It had apparently been folded in thirds to fit a legal sized envelope – or a coat pocket – and those creases are there, too.
Now a disclaimer: I have to admit to having never met Ginsberg, having never heard him speak or recite in person. In fact, the only time I remember so much as seeing him on TV was on an early evening talk show, ranting indignantly about the dun-colored clouds hanging over New York, L.A., and other American cities. (As such, I now feel a bit left out.) But those whose perspectives were many shades more intimate, speak of his tenderness, his even mindedness, fairness, and humility.The reason I conflate the man and the poem here is that so much of America did, too. Still does. He – and the poem – were persona non grata in too many places to mention.
So what was the affect of Howl, really on America, and Americans? These essays range from the pedantic – analyzing the poem’s lines in terms of its synecdoches, its troping, its catachreses. All in a vomitous outporing of Ginsberg’s perhaps overly sensitive psyche in terms of friendships, sexual and spiritual proclivities. From hat analytic vantage, we hear from Rick Moody and Sven Bickerts, who shook off their 1950s straitjacket along with Ginsberg (maybe because of him), feeling the burn of freedom carry them into the reality of middle age, which allowed them to use Ginsberg as a stepping stone to a future to which he seemed always to be pointing.
There are other impressive paeans, here, too: Those of Billy Collins, Amiri Baraka, Frank Bidart, Andrei Codrescu, Robert Pinsky – literary luminaries all. I think Ginsberg would shake his head in amazement at these testimonials, but I also think he would accept them, too – for Howl.
Each of these works testifies to the poet’s role in putting words to the unexplainable, to the arguable essence of a nation and its people, all by psychological transference of the angst of a poet not content to live in the present, compulsively peering into its possibilities. By the time you’re half through with this book, you begin to read repetitious things. While this doesn’t make for the best reading, these repetitions underscore the common effect of a unique, cathartic piece of writing on a nation – indeed, a world – desperately seeking such
What makes Howl an American touchstone is what made Ginsberg the man: paradox in the extreme, yet somehow a coherent whole. Only the poet can fully realize the degree to which poetry is not the work of man but of the daemon – the Greek inner itch that won’t leave the poet alone until what needs to be said has been said. Poets are flawed persons; they’re temperamental, unpredictable, flamboyant, difficult. Ginsberg was all of these, and more. And Howl, while perhaps suffering from a lack of relevance in the Twenty-first Century, is a milestone of the human soul.

More Selected Shorts

I continue to take it on the chin concerning creative writing contests. Writing colleague Nancy Purcell wrote me some months ago that she was entering the Doris Betts Short Story contest for 2006 and suggested I enter, too. You can read in the archives here about my taste for contests, so I declined. Today she wrote that she had received a letter sadly informing her that she didn’t win. She had, however, placed in the top ten. Along with that lukewarm information, the editor suggested she re-work her ending and submit to the North Carolina Literary Review for publication. Well, that’s how contests can help – if you’re as persistent as I know Nancy to be. Good show, Nancy.
An editorial in Poets & Writers magazine (May-June 2006) continues to make the case for the forty miles of bad road ahead for fiction writers. Joseph Bednarik in his article, “The Diminishing Law of Readership,” reports that the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) has published a synopsis of the reading and writing situation in these United States. Among the points made:
• Production of creative writing far exceeds demand.
• Literary reading continues to decline
• MFA programs in creative writing continue to proliferate.
• Publishers require underwriting (by the writers?) to cover production and distribution costs, because sales don’t support costs.
From Bednarik’s article one may easily infer that writers don’t support other writers and their books. Further, he challenges writers to READ! If you want to write for publication, he exhorts, read enough in your area of interest to nourish that publishing niche.
I continue to hear and read that young people don’t read – period. Which may have a lot to do with why writership is bloated, readership lacking.
School is over, grades not yet in. The political science class, while challenging for fourteen other of my MLA cohorts, almost did me in. We’ll see how I did. Meantime, it’s back to work on my one-day novel.