The Mascot- Lester Ballard as the Southern Other

Tennessee Williams once said “If people behaved in the way nations do, they would all be put in straightjackets.” Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the case of Lester Ballard from Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. Lester Ballard, through his dispossession, violence, and sexual deviance, is an allegory for Southern culture, an exaggerated mascot for the Southern “other.” The violence with which Ballard conducts his “sex life” mirrors the “Peculiar Institution” of slavery. His desire for sexual contact, despite his aversion to personal interaction with living beings may be seen as an attempt to carry on his bloodline, an act that is representative of a very important part of Southern heritage. Most importantly, however, Lester Ballard represents Southern “otherness” through the countless examples of his dispossession from and misunderstanding by the society in which he has been placed. Lester Ballard is, simply put, a necrophiliac and a mass-murder. However, for Cormac McCarthy, these traits are not something to be despised or feared in this character because they are not really personal traits. The fact that Ballard combines his murderous impulses with his sexual urges may be viewed as a representation of the practices of Southern slave-owners. It is commonly known that slave-owners would routinely rape female slaves. While this practice essentially provided the South with a self-replenishing supply of free label, economic gain simply doesn’t make sense as a sole compulsion to rape another human being. If Ballard’s actions are any indication, and I strongly believe that they are, the common practice of slave rape stemmed from a confusion of sexual gratification and the gratification that comes from having power over another person. As Andrew Bartlett suggests, “for Ballard erotic impulses are painfully confused with destructive impulses” (4). Ballard’s sexual deviancy shows us that slave owners were sexually aroused by the thought of having power over another human, and that they used sex, like any rapist, as a way to assert that power. This double-pleasure created the vicious circle that plagued female slaves for over 250 years. Lester Ballard’s necrophilia can further be tied to another great Southern impulse: continuing his name. The Euro-centric importance of coming “from good stock” crossed over the Atlantic and settled in the South. We can see this in the classist divisions of Southerners, Creoles, and Cajuns; we can even see it in the modern stereotype of the “inbreeding hillbilly.” A sense of royalty migrated to the South, bringing with it the need to continue strong, pure bloodlines and the need for decorative titles. While the need to call himself a colonel for no reason certainly isn’t present in Ballard’s mind, it seems that the need to spread his seed is. McCarthy shows us this when he says “You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it” (156). We see here the damage that such an obsession can cause. It promotes delusions of grandeur, encourages the Southerner to consider himself better than other men simply because of his last name. It creates a sense of entitlement in a nation where the rank and file are supposed to be every bit as worthy of respect and success as these false nobles. Ballard’s strongest connection to Southern culture, however, is revealed by the fact that society has expelled him and completely misunderstands him. It is this dispossession that makes Ballard a true mascot for the Southern other, rather than just a character with personality traits that tie in with Southern culture. McCarthy seems clearly to acknowledge Ballard as an allegory for Southern otherness because he “differs from most writers in that he does not seem interested in his character’s actions within society, but rather outside of it” (Carr 10). We see through Ballard that our fascination with Southern culture, whether we condemn or applaud it, results simply from the fact that our societies are different. Southern society, with its agrarian ways and air of romanticism, feels older, outdated. But McCarthy shows us that, just like Ballard should not be condemned for his differences, neither should American society condemn Southern culture because it is a bit “behind the curve.” McCarthy “very pointedly projects an image of man as extremely isolated, alienated, violent, and amoral” (Carr 10). However, he also encourages us to question these assessments of Lester Ballard, as well as common assessments of Southern culture. They are only isolated and alienated because they are different and because the society around them is unaccepting. They become violent only when they are dejected and put through social crucifixion. They are not inherently amoral. Instead, we must recognize that their morals have been stolen from them along with their ways of life. McCarthy shows us through his voyeuristic style exactly why we misunderstand the South and why society misunderstands Lester Ballard. As Bartlett describes it, “narrative information is most often restricted to what characters say and do [rather] than what they think or feel” (5). This shows us that our inability to accept Southern culture stems from the fact that we fail to recognize the motivations behind the South’s actions. Many people are taught to view the Civil War as a war between evil slaveholders and righteous emancipators. However, we must recognize that the South’s rebellion, despite the fact that it espoused values that do not mesh with today’s society, was inherently patriotic. We must respect the fact that these men were fighting for their rights as the Constitution then defined them. When the government threatened their way of life, it was their patriotic duty to protect it. In the latter half of the novel, Lester Ballard comes to represent the South as it was under Reconstruction. Despite being beaten, broken, and subdued, Southern culture could not be exterminated. McCarthy perfectly describes this situation through Lester’s near-drowning: “He could not swim, but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up” (156). It is this wrath that prompted events like the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. Again, Southerners were not inherently violent, they were simply responding to being conquered and to being treated as a conquered nation by a government that was supposed to be their own. It is perfectly understandable that one would revolt against the power by which one was dispossessed. Ballard mirrors this idea in his comparatively quiet stalking of the man who now occupies his house: “Ballard took to wandering over the mountain through the snow to his old homeplace where he’d watch the house, the house’s new tenant. He’d go in the night and lie up on the bank and watch him through the kitchen window… Ballard laid the rifle foresight on his chest. He swung it upward to a spot just above the ear. His finger filled the cold curve of the trigger. Bang, he said” (109). The KKK, the lynchings of hundreds of black men, the attacks on polling places were the South’s “bang.” What we must learn through Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God is that Lester Ballard, like Southern otherness, is a product of social rejection. While both certainly possess qualities that are less than wonderful, most of modern society’s aversion to the South is nothing more than misunderstanding. We must recognize that the violence we associate with the South is nothing more than a reaction to perceived wrongs. Despite the violence, sexual deviancy, and backwards nature of Southern culture (in comparison to modern American culture), we must extend the empathy we feel for Ballard and allow ourselves to accept the Southern other for what it is. Lester Ballard, as mascot for Southern otherness, shows us that we must recognize that difference is not fault.  Works CitedBartlett, Andrew. “From Voyeurism to Archaeology: Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.” The Southern Literary Journal Vol. 24(1991): 3-15.Carr, Duane R. “The Dispossessed White as Naked Ape and Stereotyped Hillbilly in the Southern Novels of Cormac McCarthy.” The Midwest Quarterly.McCarthy, Cormac. Child of God. New York: Vintage Books International, 1993.

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