Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

One Drive, Two Deaths in Cormac McCarthy's Child of God

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

One Drive, Two Deaths in Cormac McCarthy's Child of God

Article excerpt

The reality that underlies the fictional worlds of Cormac McCarthy has been the cause of much debate among scholars. Vereen M. Bell characterizes the McCarthian universe as "Heraclitus without Logos," meaning that it represents a protean flux ever tending toward nothingness, offering "no first principles, no foundational truth" (9). Edwin T. Arnold, taking Bell to task, especially his characterization of McCarthy's second novel, Outer Dark, as "brutally nihilistic" (44), notes the religious significance of the book's title. Following William J. Schafer, Arnold notes that the phrase "outer dark" is taken from the New Testament in which Jesus draws a distinction between "the kingdom of heaven" and "the 'outer darkness' of hell" (46). From Arnold's perspective, while McCarthy's vision of reality can indeed be characterized as infernal, it can hardly be called nihilistic in the sense of lacking in any moral or spiritual significance. Of course there is the possibility that McCarthy is merely giving in to the postmodern penchant for irreverence and irony in his use of the title. Yet anyone familiar with McCarthy's literary voice would likely find this suggestion difficult to digest. Referring to McCarthy's third novel, Child of God, Arnold argues, "[t]he title, at first, appears to be a wicked joke, except that, when the narrator introduces Lester as a 'child of God much like yourself perhaps' (4), there is no sense of irony whatsoever" (54). If Arnold's reading is correct, and I believe it is, McCarthy's use of such titles must be taken quite seriously and be seen as bearing significance on the overall meaning of the texts.

McCarthy's most explicit engagement with the central metaphysical question these critics pose is found in The Sunset Limited and The Road. The former, a novel in dramatic form, concerns two men, one named "Black" and one named "White." While on a literal level these impersonal monikers correlate to the "race" of each man, it is also true that each possesses a firmly entrenched view of reality that is the polar opposite of the other. Thus, the text embodies a tension between black and white worldviews. White, a suicidal and misanthropic "professor of darkness" (McCarthy 140) holds that "the world is basically a forced labor camp from which the workers-perfectly innocent-are led forth by lottery, a few each day, to be executed" (122), thus making self-destruction both logical and expedient. Through his eyes, man is a sickening and futile specimen, "[a] thing dangling in senseless articulation in a howling void" (139). Furthermore, the concept of God is 'just a load of crap" (62), and the prospect of eternal life, "the ultimate horror" (135). Black, on the other hand, is an ex-con turned ghetto missionary. Living in a rundown New York City tenement, he offers shelter to the neighborhood junkies and crackheads who, despite his charity, walk off with anything that's not bolted down. Asked if he thinks Jesus is present in the room with them, he responds, "No. I dont think he's in this room. . . . I know he's in this room" (10). Black believes that salvation is there for the taking, but in order to get it, "you got to let your brother off the hook. You got to actually take him and hold him in your arms" (78). The story begins directly after Black has saved White from a suicide attempt in the subway, and the dramatic action of the text centers on the former's attempt to keep the latter in the apartment for as long as possible and dissuade him from making another attempt on his life. It is ultimately an attempt at metanoia, or conversion, that change of mind that brings one back from the brink. The text seemingly ends in Black's failure, with White waxing poetic in typical McCarthian fashion on the futility and emptiness of life prior to storming out of the apartment, leaving Black calling on a divinity that remains silent. This silence has led some critics to the conclusion that the vision of reality the drama unfolds is one of "devastating nihilism" (Cooper 2). …

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