Child of God

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For the film based on the novel, see Child of God (film)
Child of God
Child of God - Cormac McCarthy.jpg
First edition cover
AuthorCormac McCarthy
CountryUnited States
GenreGothic, philosophical, horror
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)

Child of God (1973) is the third novel by American author Cormac McCarthy. It depicts the life of a violent young outcast and serial killer in 1960s Appalachian Tennessee.

Though the novel received critical praise, it was not a financial success. Like its predecessor Outer Dark (1968), Child of God established McCarthy's interest in using extreme isolation, perversity, and violence to represent human experience. McCarthy ignores literary conventions – for example, he does not use quotation marks – and switches between several styles of writing such as matter-of-fact descriptions, almost poetic prose, and colloquial first-person narration (with the speaker remaining unidentified).

Plot summary[edit]

Set in mountainous Sevier County, Tennessee, in the 1960s, Child of God tells the story of Lester Ballard, a dispossessed, violent man whom the narrator describes as "a child of God much like yourself perhaps." Ballard's life is a disastrous attempt to exist outside the social order. Successively deprived of parents and homes and with few other ties, Ballard descends literally and figuratively to the level of a cave-dweller as he falls into crime and degradation.

The novel is structured in three segments, each segment describing the advancing isolation of the protagonist from society. In the first part of the novel, a group of unidentified narrators from Sevierville describe Lester to the audience and frame him within that community's mythology and historical consciousness. The second and third parts of the novel increasingly leave culture and community behind as Lester goes from squatter to cave-dweller to serial killer and necrophile as he becomes increasingly associated with premodern and inanimate phenomena.[1] The novel ends with the dehumanized and mutilated Ballard dying in incarceration, his remains eventually dissected by medical students and then interred outside the city, while the long-hidden corpses of his victims are unearthed from his former subterranean haunt.


Overarching themes of the novel are cruelty, isolation, and moral degradation of humans and the role of fate and society in it. One of the novel's main themes is sexual deviancy, specifically necrophilia. Ballard, who the novel makes clear is unable to have conventional romantic relationships, eventually descends into necrophilia after finding a dead couple in a car. After this "first love" is destroyed in a fire, he becomes proactive, creating dead female partners by shooting them with his rifle. Ballard also makes no distinction between adult women and young girls, at one point killing a girl whom he had previously asked "How come you wear them britches? You cain't see nothin". Another theme examined by the novel is survival. As society pushes Ballard further and further into a corner, he degenerates into an almost barbaric survivalist, living in a cave, stealing food, and deviously escaping after he is captured by a group of vengeful men.


In 2014, Jason Diamond of Flavorwire ranked Child of God as McCarthy's third best book.[2]

Historical references[edit]

In a 1992 interview, McCarthy stated that the character Ballard was based on an unnamed historical figure.[3] Despite its surreal focus, Child of God contains much unobtrusive historical detail about Sevier County, Tennessee, including references to local Ku Klux Klan-like groups of the 1890s known as White Caps and Bluebills. Ballard's grandfather is said to have been a White Cap.

Texas book report controversy[edit]

In October 2007, Child of God found itself at the center of a teaching controversy at Jim Ned High School in Tuscola, Texas. Kaleb Tierce, the Advanced Placement English teacher and coach at Jim Ned, assigned a book report for which a fourteen-year-old student selected this title. Tierce was placed on paid administrative leave when the mother of the student complained. The case was investigated, and Tierce was not charged, but his teaching contract was not renewed.[4][5]

Film adaptation[edit]

In February 2012, James Franco began shooting a film adaptation of Child of God in Hillsboro, West Virginia.[6] The film stars Scott Haze as Lester Ballard and Jim Parrack as the Sevier County lawman Deputy Cotton.[7] The movie was selected to be screened in the official competition at the 70th Venice International Film Festival and was an official selection of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. The film received mixed to negative reviews, holding a rating of 38% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. The critical consensus states: "An obviously reverent adaptation that fails to make a case for the source material being turned into a movie, Child of God finds director James Franco outmatched by Cormac McCarthy's novel."[8]


  1. ^ Walsh, Christopher J. (2009). In the Wake of the Sun: Navigating the Southern Works of Cormac McCarthy (PDF). University of Tennessee Libraries: Newfound Press. ISBN 978-0-9797292-7-0. Archived from the original (PDF) on July 12, 2011. Retrieved April 25, 2012.
  2. ^ "Ranking Cormac McCarthy's Greatest Books". Flavorwire. Retrieved December 3, 2019.
  3. ^ Woodward, Richard (April 19, 1992). "Cormac McCarthy's Venomous Fiction". The New York Times. Retrieved August 24, 2006.
  4. ^ Myers, Doug; Kyle Peveto (October 16, 2007). "Teacher could face charges over book". Abilene Reporter-News. Scripps Interactive Newspapers Group. Archived from the original on October 3, 2009. Retrieved October 13, 2009.
  5. ^ Myers, Doug (October 13, 2008). "Ex-Jim Ned teacher allegedly sought sexual favors". Abilene Reporter-News. Scripps Interactive Newspapers Group. Archived from the original on February 5, 2010. Retrieved April 5, 2010.
  6. ^ Jiordano, Angelo (February 9, 2012). "Hillsboro hits the big screen". The Pocohontas Times. Marlinton, West Virginia. Archived from the original on February 18, 2013. Retrieved February 17, 2013.
  7. ^ Jagernauth, Kevin (February 15, 2012). "James Franco's 'Child Of God' Will Hit Film Festivals This Year, Aiming For 2013 Release". Indiewire. Archived from the original on June 22, 2012. Retrieved February 17, 2013.
  8. ^

External links[edit]