I am a devotee of Cormac McCarthy. There is something I find deeply moving and expansive in all his writing. There is always landscape and men battling to save themselves (or weakly succumb) to the evil that faces them and, usually chases them. Odd friendships and respect built up over time in the most desolate of places. And the history, the history of land, language and civilisation that he seamlessly layers his work with, is a marvel.And so, for me, it is a fascinating education in writing to read his early books, all in new editions since the success of The Road, and to examine his experiments with style, theme and material. Child of God is a book that was published back in 1974 and it is scarily intense. A growingly depraved man, Lester Ballard, with no ability or desire to stop himself, kills and keeps the bodies of women, in attempts to have an intimate relationship, something he has been excluded from in the ‘real’ world. It is set in a remote part of America in winter and summer, with Ballard being discovered in a cave with the decomposing bodies, some dressed in clothes he has stolen for them, by the police. Yes, it is about sexual violence, necrophilia and abject loneliness. It is also about survival. It is a gruelling disturbing read and one I have not been able to get out of my head. As an example of McCarthy experimenting with the themes that have become central to his work it is revealing. He pushes the reader into intensely uncomfortable and violent corners with no exit or even respite from Ballard’s madness, and has said that the character is actually based on a real figure in history. And of course, there is the biblical river that Ballard, the people he kills, the people who hunt him, and the reader, are forced down: we are all children of God. So, I found it fascinating as I read Gerard Donovan’s book Julius Winsome that I couldn’t stop thinking about Child of God. A loner with no real connection to a community, insulated by his father’s books that line the walls of his low roofed, often snow-bound house and jilted by his one love, Winsome is a man who has had an austere life and who is deeply suspicious of other people. Then his dog, his only friend, is shot dead at close range. Winsome isn’t the mad, outcast from society that Ballard is at the beginning of Child of God but his emotional remoteness from the town he lives near, the isolation of his house, his inability to connect The similarities are obvious, remoteness in landscape and relationship, memory serving as present, disappointment in love and the realization that they are never going to fit in, and revenge. And the fathers. There is always a father in McCarthy’s stories and similarly in Julius Winsome, the biggest relationship Winsome has is with his father (and grandfather). I wonder if Donovan has ever read Child of God. In this interview he doesn’t mention McCarthy but you never know. I’m NOT saying he has taken anything from McCarthy (if he even has) other than inspiration but perhaps these themes are universal for men?
I guess I find this interesting because writing is such an experiment, an endeavour, an idea realised as best a writer can, and that our influences and imagination are fluid and receptive and hopefully open to all comers, whatever form they take. And I think the idea of a fringe-dweller of any sort offers up a rich canvasfor a story to run across. Now that I’m banging on about it, I am also reminded of Mark O’Flynn’s lovely book Grass Dogs. It’s an Australian novel with similar themes, a man on the fringes of society and acceptance, with only dogs to keep him company. Until, of course, the dogs are taken away. The dogs are always taken away aren’t they? Could be a good panel discussion sometime or other.