Eric Savoy, professor of English at the Université de Montréal, says that Gothic “embodies and gives voice to the dark nightmare that is the underside of the American dream (167).” Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy, and Provinces of Night by William Gay are both Southern Gothic novels that conform to both the genre’s literary conventions, and the conventions of the time in which they were written. Conventions of Southern Gothic literature are clear and include: an outsider, or freak; the grotesque; imprisonment and freedom; violence; and a strong sense of place (Genre: Southern Gothic). Both Child of God and Provinces of Night express their deep themes through these conventions. Exceptionally dark novels, McCarthy explores themes of freedom and isolation, while Gay probes the idea of family and loyalty – all themes integral to the idea of the American dream.
After reading both works, it is not surprising to know that in the early 1970s, the two spoke for a year about Gay’s stories and Flannery O’Connor. (Giraldi, 338). McCarthy acted as a mentor to Gay, and it is easy to see his influence on the younger writer. While both stories fulfill their required conventions, Gay’s story reads like a milder imitation of McCarthy. If Southern Gothic embodies the darkness of the American dream, Gay still has hope in the promise of that dream, whereas McCarthy has written it off entirely.
Child of God by Cormac McCarthy is the story of Lester Ballard, a twenty-seven year old man, living in Sevier County, Tennessee in the 1960’s. In Part I, we meet Lester as he is protesting the auction of his family home. It goes poorly, he threatens the Sheriff and the deputy hits him in the head with an axe. After losing his home, he squats in a shack on a neighboring property. From the beginning McCarthy establishes conflict, we know that Ballard is messed up and confrontational. He’s a voyeur, hanging out at the Frog Mountain turn around, watching couples having sex and masturbating (McCarthy 20). Tension is high, from Ballard’s strange behavior alone, the reader can feel that something is coming. But early on Lester is still social. He has friendship with the dump keeper, even if the friendship is based on seeing the keepers oddly sexual daughters (28). He attends church (31). Further conflict is created when he finds a woman in just a nightgown on the side of the road, it appears that he cares about her, asking her “ain’t you cold?” before she reacts with fear and he steals her nightgown and leaves her on the side of the road, nude (42).
McCarthy ratchets up the tension in part II which begins with Ballard finding a mid/post-coital couple dead in their car on the turn around. Ballard pulls the man off the woman and has sex with her (88). Ballard has descended from voyeurism to necrophilia. He then takes her body home with him, so that he can continue to assault her. An accidental house fire causes Ballard to lose both her and his house. He is further isolated by now living in a cave. The conflict builds in this section as Ballard’s actions become more and more antisocial. He kills more people, and moves them to his cave so that he can have sex with the dead women. He shows up at his old home, dressed in his victim’s clothes and hair, plotting to kill the new owner (140). Tension rises as Ballard’s character is developed.
Part III addresses the crisis of the story, Ballard gets caught. While he is recovering in the hospital, a group of men from the community kidnap him and threaten to kill him if he doesn’t show them where the bodies are (182). Ballard brings them into the cave under the guise of helping, but escapes. He spends weeks lost in the cave, surviving on rodents and ground water. When he finally finds his way out of the cave, he sees a school bus driving down the road, and recognizes himself in the face of a small boy (191).This marks the crisis of the story, at the point in the story where he is the least human, where he has been living underground for weeks, surviving like an animal, he decides that he needs to go back to the hospital and turn himself in, saying to the night duty nurse at the climax of the story “I’m supposed to be here” (192). In a tale of increased violence, perversity, isolation and antisocial behavior, in the pinnacle moment, Ballard decides to rejoin society, at the cost of his freedom.
In the resolution of the story, Lester is never charged with anything, but spends the rest of his life in the state hospital. When he dies his body is donated to science. Ballard, whose descent was marked with isolation and separation from society, is now just like everyone else, a body in the ground.
Child of God was published in 1973 and is considered within the Post-Modernism literary time period. McCarthy plays with a number of Post Modernist literary conventions. For example, Post-Modernism encourages a rejection of the idea of “western modernity and values” (Defining Post-Modernism). No one rejects “western modernity and values” like Lester Ballard who defecates in the woods, lives in a cave, kills people and has sexual intercourse with corpses.
Pastiche, or the pasting together of multiple genres in one work, is another convention that McCarthy uses. Child of God is told with some third person narrative parts, and some first person sections that are almost like interviews with unnamed community members. McCarthy also uses the conventions of fabulation, which rejects the traditional structure of a novel by refusing to use quotation marks; and minimalism, by focusing is on the surface description with stark realism, carefully cold narration, no subplots, nothing extraneous (Post Modernism). He embraces the convention of “movement away from the apparent objectivity provided by omniscient third-person narrators, fixed narrative points of view, and clear – cut moral positions” (Post Modernism and Literature).
Provinces of Night, takes place in Ackerman’s Field, Tennessee in 1952. The story begins with E.F. Bloodworth coming home from twenty years of self imposed exile. Recovering from a stroke, he’s sent his youngest son, Brady, money to set him up a trailer on the family property. Everyone is surprised that he’s coming back (Gay, 25). Boyd, E.F.’s middle son, abandons his young son, Fleming, in order to go find his adulterous wife who has run off to Detroit (30). From the very beginning, Gay creates tension through the interaction of these characters – the unwanted Grandfather returning, and the abandonment of a minor. He sets the scene for his theme by showing us how the family is begrudgingly helping E.F. come home, because he’s blood, and how Boyd is out trying to bring his wife home, or at least avenge her leaving, because she’s blood, yet leaves his boy home alone. Everything is tied to the idea of family, and what we do because of that bond.
Over the course of the novel, E.F. and Fleming forge a relationship. In the climax of the story, E.F. has run off into the woods in the winter trying to escape a man he believes has come to his door. Fleming, worried, finds his grandfather frozen to the snow, pitiful, and begging for help. Fleming could not bear to see his grandfather like that so instead of running for help, he helps E.F. commit suicide with a pistol (274). The resolution of the story, like the introduction, is twofold. After E.F. dies, there is a confrontation where Brady tells Fleming that he used him as a pawn to kill the old man, and that he has more of Fleming’s things and will do it again. Fleming beats Brady with a book, and then burns the house down (281) so that Brady no longer has any control over him. Then, Fleming goes to Raven, the woman he is in love with, who is pregnant with his cousin’s baby, and tells her he wants to marry her, and be the father of her child (with his cousin) (285) and they plan a life together.
Provinces of Night was published in 2000 which makes it a post-postmodern novel (Successor States). According to Dubey, Professor of English at the University of Illinois, (2011), “The period after postmodernism is characterized by the emergence of a new kind of fiction that once again aspires to represent and critique the world.” In his depiction Gay paints a realistic portrait of life in rural Tennessee in the 1950’s. The characters are round and life-like. E.F. is a good enough musician to leave his family, but not good enough to make it big. Fleming is bright but uneducated. Brady takes care of his mother but believes he has some spiritual powers. The story feels as though Gay is holding a mirror to society, and shining a light in the dark corners.
Literary conventions of the Post-Postmodern or New Sincerity period include: pragmatic idealism, engagement, self awareness, a strong sense of morality, and awareness of context. (Fitzgerald) All of these conventions are embodied in Fleming Bloodworth, despite not knowing his grandfather, he cared for him; he protected his grandmother; he refused to help his cousin Neal dispose of a dead body; he loved Raven Lee openly. Gay even goes so far as to have Fleming say: “Somebody is going to have to say what they really mean and then do what they say they will. All this lying. All this bullshit and pretending. It’s just wasting lives, wasting time, everything is just a waste. (285).” He is idealistic and self aware. He is honest and moral despite being surrounded by adults who make terrible decisions. Fleming, for all his aspirations of being a writer at the beginning of the story, realizes by the end that in the real world, he has to do something. He has to get out of Ackerman’s Field, he has to get a job, he has to learn to support himself. Unlike the other men in his life: E.F., Boyd, and Brady, he can’t just sit around and wait for something to happen. So, he joins the military. Fleming takes a realistic step forward for a young man with his background, education, and geographical location.
Unlike Southern Gothic writers of earlier periods, like McCarthy, Gay leans less on narrative conventions, but that too, is a narrative convention of Post-Post Modernism. According to McLaughlin, “Post-post modernism is less focused on self-conscious wordplay and the violation of narrative conventions and more on representing the world we all more or less share” (66-67). Using post-postmodern literary conventions of realism, morality and awareness, Gay has painted us a picture of life in rural Tennessee in 1952. Through the struggles of the Bloodworth family, the choices they make, Gay makes us ask the underlying question of what is blood worth? How far do you go for family?
Unsurprisingly, given their close association, both McCarthy and Gay embrace some of the same storytelling elements. Immediately noticeable when reading these two works is that neither author uses quotation marks in their dialogue. For example, an exchange from Gay:
She studied his face in cold appraisal, eerily like a young woman peering through the ruin time had made of her face. You’re a good looking man, she told him. But you’re not the only man in the world. Far from it. You’ll turn up some time from your whisky makin or your music playin and be mighty surprised. (282)
The exclusion of quotation marks makes the dialogue a deeper part of the story by giving the voices of the characters equal footing with the narrator. The reader has to pay attention to all of the voices.
In both Child of God and Provinces of Night figurative language is used to deepen and strengthen the prose. Interestingly, both authors describe their character’s interaction with a black snake in their dwelling. Gay describes the scene “[the cabin] was profoundly abandoned save a blacksnake that dropped from a ceiling beam and flowed like a moving inkslash through a floorboard and gone (40).” For McCarthy, it was a little different “[the snake] shot forward and dropped to the floor with a thud and rifled over the boards like ink running in a gutter and was out the door and gone (16).” Strangely, both authors compare the snake to ink. Gay’s description of a “moving inkslash” flowing, is good, his loose and meandering metaphors suit his writing style. Whereas McCarthy’s “thud,” “rifled,” “running,” and “gone” are much stronger, richer and more tense – suited to his tight, dense work.
Literary Conventions of the Post-Modern Period also include black humor, or a tongue-in-cheek irony, McCarthy uses this, for example when Lester brings some stolen watches into the store to swindle some buyers, and ends up being swindled himself (McCarthy, 132). Gay too uses black humor throughout his work, for example when Fleming attacks his Uncle Brady with the novel that his teacher leant him (Gay, 281), there is an inescapable irony that his teacher is giving him books to help him escape this violent life, and Fleming is using the book as a weapon.
Two areas where the books differ, and I think that is to the detriment of Gay’s story is in narrator voice and chapter structure. Child of God has one narrator who follows the main character, with the occasional chapters told by unnamed locals. The single main narrator allows us to really identify with Lester, while the occasional locals provide us with color commentary and an outsiders perspective. Provinces of Night is narrated from the perspective of Boyd, E.F. Fleming, and Albright., and it is not always clear who we are reading about. The individual voices are not different enough to be immediately recognizable. I think the story would have been stronger with the Boyd and Albright perspectives worked in differently.
Secondly, Child of God starts with a bang. Exceptionally short chapters draw the reader in and have them flipping pages quickly. It is exciting and engrossing to the reader. Provinces of Night alternatively meanders down a long path to finding a plot. With extremely long chapters, broken by markers into different narrator voices, one really has to be curious and interested in the character development to keep turning pages.
Racial tension often fuels Southern Gothic novels. McCarthy addresses this in his discussion of “white caps” and “blue bills.” The “white caps” also known as the Klan were among other things put together purge what they considered to be vice from the area. “People don’t want to hear about that, said the old man (McCarthy, 165) McCarthy acknowledges that people don’t want to think about racial tension and violence done in the name of righteousness, but he goes on to describe the downfall of the “white caps” for three more pages culminating in the deputy asking if “you think people was meaner then than they are now?” and the old man answering “No, he said. I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one. (168.)” For a story with all white characters, McCarthy addresses the race issue both past and present in a way that shows that some things never change, and the shame in that.
Race is all but invisible in Provinces of Night. Other than references to E.F. “sounding black” (Gay, 235) on his records and people thinking they were race records, there is no mention of diversity in this story and that’s disappointing. Given the subject matter of the novel, E.F.’s folk music, and Boyd’s move to Detroit, integration of racial tension would have been easy. Gay intentionally left it out. This absence can be interpreted in two ways, that Gay thought the problem was too big to be addressed and it didn’t fit his hopeful vision. Or, that he didn’t think it was a problem. Given that E.F. sounded black, and his music career was stagnant, Gay was giving a gentle commentary on how African American’s with talent are received in the United States. If people thought that E.F. was white, he might have had more success. But the absence of addressing racial tension in a real way shows that Gay had no intention of diving deep into the problems of society or ripping the bandage off the oozing sores of society.
Lester Ballard is an outsider and a freak. His behavior is grotesque, a mockery of society’s norms. McCarthy’s narration choices support the isolation theme of this novel, at the very beginning the narrator addresses the audience once, and describes Lester, saying he is: “A child of God, much like yourself, perhaps” (4). He creates a connection between the reader and Lester, and then narrates the novel in a way that leaves us alone with him. There is no judgment or commentary throughout the story. It is left to the reader to understand why Lester acts the way that he does, and to our horror, he becomes sympathetic. Ballard does horrible things, but somehow over time, they are understandable, almost justified. We know him, and even if we don’t want to admit it, we know why he acts the way he does. Child of God, is the story of Lester Ballard, but it is also the story of humanity, and the depths one might go to, to belong.
In the most disturbing scene in Child of God, we see a foreshadowing of the story’s crisis. Lester hands a Robin to a small child to play with. As the adults talk, the child harms the bird. “he’s done chewed its legs off, the girl said. Ballard grinned uneasily. He wanted it to where it couldn’t run off, he said” (McCarthy 79). Reflecting the end of the story, Ballard so desperately wanted company, that he killed people and kept their bodies in order to not be alone, like the small boy harmed the bird to make the bird stay with him. Lester changes over the course of the novel from someone who doesn’t want his freedom, his home taken away from him, to someone who willingly gives up his freedom in order to live with others.
In Provinces of Night the conflict, crisis and resolution all create the intended theme of the story, what is blood worth? For E.F. it means coming home when you’re dying, even if it puts you in danger – from the law or from people you’ve taken advantage of. For Boyd it meant abandoning his son, to chase his pride. For Fleming it meant taking care of his grandfather, trying to protect his grandmother, and adopting his cousin’s baby, even though his cousin was nothing but awful to him.
Both McCarthy and Gay use the setting of East Tennessee as a way to isolate their characters and reflect the loneliness that they endure. Lester lays awake in his cave home and cries (McCarthy, 170). For Fleming, in his empty house days “yawned like an enormous vacuum (Gay, 10). This deep sense of place can be heard in their voices, seen in the landscape, and felt in the choices that the characters make.
When one dreams of the perfect novel to embody the conventions of Southern Gothic, Child of God comes to mind. Lester Ballard, the increasingly isolated, handicapped outsider searching for freedom at first in the rejection of normal society, finds acceptance only when surrendering to institutionalization. The story ripe with brutal violence, and set deep in the mountains of the South. McCarthy’s spare and vicious style choices echo the landscape and the mindset of his character.
In Provinces of Night, Gay has tempered the brutality with tenderness (Giraldi, 339). His characters are still handicapped outsiders, E.F. physically by his stroke, Fleming by his age. This story too, is violent, from Boyd tracking and killing his wife and her partner, to Brady’s voodoo hexes, to the crisis acts of Fleming killing his grandfather and beating his uncle. But while McCarthy is increasingly dark, and hopeless, Gay’s work always teeters on possibility. Fleming’s love for the spicy Raven Lee, and Albright’s comic relief bring a lightness to Provinces of Night that Child of God does not have.
“Southern Gothic genre is the epitome of the American Dream turned upside-down (Koehler, 18).” Both McCarthy and Gay explore themes if a dark American dream: freedom vs. isolation, and family/loyalty at what cost? Both are successful at diving deep into the themes while fulfilling the conventions of both their time periods and the Southern Gothic genre. But, after reading both, it is clear that Provinces of Night’s intensity is watered down in favor of a warmer, funnier, more hopeful version of Southern Gothic, which may appeal to some readers who found Child of God too dark and brutal. Gay shows his readers the dark side of the American dream, but he still believes in it. McCarthy exposes all the brokenness of the dream and reveals that the dream was ridiculous to begin with.
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