Cormac McCarthy | Critical Review by Anatole Broyard

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Cormac McCarthy.
This section contains 914 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Anatole Broyard

Critical Review by Anatole Broyard

SOURCE: "'Daddy Quit', She Said," in The New York Times, December 5, 1973, p. 45.

In the following essay, Broyard discusses McCarthy's writing, and his ability to make readers empathize with evil, immoral characters.

It's interesting to see how a good writer can make us care about a "bad" character. I mean bad in a moral sense. Talent, it seems, can find the humanity behind the inhuman, the pathos that comes from being out of step with the world, the loneliness, like death, that is the wages of sin. In spite of our increasing disillusionment in fiction and in the social sciences with homo sapiens, he is still all that we've got and only the most obdurate misanthrope can resist him when he is presented in the round, when even his imperfections pulse with life and hope.

An evil character brilliantly portrayed will awaken our empathy—even sympathy—more readily than a good one in a pedestrian description. It seems that we hunger for vividness, that we are afraid of being engulfed in a gray anonymity. Give me character of any kind is an unspoken plea of our age, to which the "charismatic" craze bears witness. I think, for example, that the unprecedented hostility shown to President Nixon is not a response to his character or his politics, but to his insistence on concealing his character in his politics.

I suppose that Ballard, the protagonist of Cormac McCarthy's Child of God is evil, but I hesitate to call him that. It is not a philosophy of permissiveness or any diabolist leanings that inhibits me, but the fact that he is so real, coupled with the further condition that all of his actions flow so naturally from what he is. He murders, rapes, vandalizes corpses, sets fires and steals—yet Mr. McCarthy has convinced me that his crimes originated in a reaching for love. Now ordinarily such a statement—and there is no shortage of them—would make me feel very impatient with the person who made it. But art, apparently, hath charms to soothe the indignant breast.

I cared about Ballard and very nearly forgave him his sins because the author seduced me into feeling that he was someone I knew very well—so well that I felt like a reluctant neighbor being questioned by reporters about the fellow next door who had just committed a lurid crime. That's the magic of art. It can make you contradict yourself, surprise yourself, discover charities you blush to confront. When Ballard lugged a dead girl several miles to his freezing shack and thawed her out in front of the fire so that he could vandalize her, I felt not disgust but pity. "He poured into that waxen ear everything he'd ever thought of saying to a woman." Well, I temporized, it seems to be the best he can do.

When he goes out and buys clothes for the dead girl, so he can dress and undress her—first going outside so he can steal a look at her through the window—I could see the perverted poetry of it. It was the same sort of feeling that induced him to carry everywhere with him two huge teddy bears and a stuffed tiger he had won at a shooting gallery. When he began wearing the clothes of his other female victims as he went out to commit murder, his character took on still another dimension—one harder for me to feel but one that the author's conception of him could still afford.

Mr. McCarthy has the best kind of Southern style, one that fuses risky eloquence, intricate rhythms and dead-to-rights accuracy. I've often wondered whether this kind of writing—William Faulkner is the classical example—isn't partly a result of the black influence on Southern speech, a stress on sonorousness and musicality. Whatever its source, the author uses it to splendid effect in several flawless scenes. In one of them, Ballard is sleeping in his shack when a pack of hunting dogs, close on the trail of their prey, follows its scent through the doorless entrance and out the window, while he, first terrified, then enraged, strikes out at them.

When Ballard finds a rusty old axhead and takes it to the blacksmith to be sharpened, the smith croons a beautiful elegy to the lost instinct of workmanship, describing, again in infallible rhythms, each step of the process. "Some people will poke around at somethin else," he says, "and leave the tool they're heatin to perdition but the proper thing is to fetch her out the minute she shows the color of grace. Now we want a high red. Want a high red. Now she comes." In another scene, a father catches his daughter behind the barn with a boy and chases him off. But then he finds sex so strong in the air that before he realizes what he is doing, he has taken the boy's place. His daughter's response ought to go down in the annals of Southern history. "Daddy quit," she says.

To demonstrate that he is human too, Mr. McCarthy makes a few small mistakes here and there. He ought to resist words like strobic, palimpsest, mutant and inculpate, as well as inversions like knew not. And there's an apostrophe to fate on page 156 that belongs in somebody else's book. But these are overflowings, mere spills, from a brimming imagination. Child of God is no idle title. Ballard is one, like you and me and the author too, and this book isn't going to let us forget it.

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This section contains 914 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Anatole Broyard
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