”The dumpkeeper had spawned nine daughters and named them out of an old medical dictionary gleaned from the rubbish he picked. Uretha, Cerebella, Hernia Sue.
They moved like cats and like cats in heat attracted surrounding swains to their midden until the old man used to go out at night and fire a shotgun at random just to clear the air. He couldn’t tell which was the oldest or what age and he didn’t know whether they should go out with boys or not. Like cats they sensed his lack of resolution. They were coming and going all hours in all manner of degenerate cars, a dissolute carousel of rotting sedans and ni**erized convertibles with bluedot taillamps and chrome horns and foxtails and giant dice or dashboard demons of spurious fur. All patched up out of parts and lowslung and bumping over the ruts. Filled with old lanky country boys with long cocks and big feet.”
You could say that those country boys and those daughters of the dumpkeeper are uneducated, disenfranchised, white trash, but don’t put them too far down the rungs of the evolutionary ladder because you still need room for Lester.
If you were to compose a ballad of Lester Ballard it would not be one of heroism, of self-sacrifice, or of kindness. It would be a song of the grotesque, of darkness, and of the human mind degraded to the point of madness. If Lester were an animal. He would be a dog with rabies. You’d put him down because he wouldn’t be safe walking around with normal people.
The sheriff, after yet another issue with Lester, gives him a warning that, of course, didn’t make even the slightest impression on Lester.
”Mr. Ballard, he said. You are either going to have to find some other way to live or some other place in the world to do it in.”
What the sheriff should have done, if he’d had any inkling of what was to come, was to gunnysack Lester, and throw him in a deep river. He could have tried driving him across the state line and leaving him to be someone else’s problem, but Lester is just that kind of bad penny that always turns up again.
2013 movie poster for Child of God
It all begins when Lester’s ancestral home is put up on the auction blocks. Now it ain’t much. There is maybe some good timber on it, and getting bids is not easy, but land will always sell. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t really say, but usually when land gets sold at auction there is a back tax issue. Lester doesn’t seem like the type that would ever think paying taxes was in his best interest. What this does is make Lester into a wandering bundle of mischief.
He steals. He spies. He plots vengeance.
Not that anyone in the county seems to have any prospects to achieve prosperity (anything above the poverty line), but Lester falls into that category of negative digits. His attempts at wooing women, let me see your titties, are met with disdain and rejection. Even the dumpkeeper’s daughters, who will hump just about anything, would crush him under the heel of a calloused foot rather than give him a whiff of the pleasure of feminine kindness.
Lester is an annoyance, but comical, inspiring the shaking of matronly heads, and laughs between men over a bottle of shine. If truth be known they think he is a troubled, but relatively harmless dumbass.
It’s not like he’d have ever thought of it on his own. It just fell into his lap. He comes across a jalopy running in the woods with the radio on. A boy and a girl with clothing disarrayed are in the backseat dead. The girl...well...she is still warm and unlike other girls she ain’t saying no.
Yeah he did it.
Lester had such a good time he brought her back to an abandoned house he’d been using for shelter. He’d been lonely of course.
”Alone in the empty shell of a house the squatter watched through the moteblown glass a rimshard of bonecolored moon come cradling up over the black balsams on the ridge, ink trees a facile hand had sketched against the paler dark of winter heavens.”
Well the girl wasn’t much for conversation, but if he brought her close to the fire and warmed her up she could almost feel alive.
”He took off all her clothes and looked at her, inspecting her body carefully, as if he would see how she was made. He went outside and looked in through the window at her lying naked before the fire. When he came back in he unbuckled his trousers and stepped out of them and laid next to her. He pulled the blanket over them.”
Just as Lester is settling into his new domestic arrangement tragedy strikes. He builds the fire too big and the whole house catches on fire. He saves his beloved rifle, the bears he won at the carnaval, and his bedding, but his new plaything, kept in the attic so she would refreeze, was lost.
Except for the fickleness of fate Lester might have remained a happily contented necrophiliac for the rest of the winter. Now summer would have brought on different issues. The smell of decay might have even put a damper on Lester’s lustful stirrings. Homeless and womanless Lester decides to try and fix both those problems.
As women disappear and the law is powerless, for lack of evidence, to do anything about Lester’s predilections, the White Caps decide to take matters into their own hands. In Indiana back in 1873 farmers started forming this secret society that would violently inflict justice on people who seemed to be beyond the law. As this movement spread South the organization took on some racial overtones and started disguising themselves similarly to the KKK. Merchants who were buying up too much land and black men who had thoughts of becoming land owners were targeted in a time when poor white farmers felt they were losing everything.
They were farmers not law enforcement officers. Lester escapes.
”He’d long been wearing the underclothes of his female victims but now he took to appearing in their outerwear as well. A gothic doll in illfit clothes, its carmine mouth floating detached and bright in the white landscape.”
Lester starts out being strange, just a bit different. Not different in an Einstein pondering the universe kind of way. More like two brain cells drifting around in his head that collide once in a while creating a spark kind of guy. Once he has been banished from any center hold in the community he becomes feral, a man caught in a permanent state of flight or fight. He becomes dangerous and unhinged. The grotesque becomes as normal to him as white picket fences are to the rest of us.
Cormac McCarthy will always expose you to a form of human being that will make you uncomfortable. You will twitch in your seat. You will check the doors and windows one more time before going to bed. You will start to make a more indepth analysis of your crazy cousin Larry. You will reluctantly come away with a broader understanding of the spectrum of people making up humanity. You will question your own sanity and wonder if it is possible for you to ever be as crazy as Lester Ballard.
Would Lester have been able to stay a hair’s breadth away from insanity if he’d had one normal friend? Just one person who could give him a bead to follow. A person who could say ‘that ain’t right Lester’ at a critical moment. I do ponder questions like that late at night when I wonder if I could be stable enough and patient enough to keep someone else sane. I would probably be too practical to put myself in the path of a psychopath. We just hope the madness doesn’t find us.
I also have read and reviewed Suttree by Cormac McCarthy