In his essay “The Dead Mule Rides Again,” Jerry Leath Mills argues
. . . there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it?
Mills’s convincing textual evidence draws on over thirty authors, but declares Cormac McCarthy “unchallenged king of literary mule carnage.” Some proof:
4. Decapitation by irate opera singer. Cormac McCarthy, who far surpasses even Faulkner in the mayhem he visits upon literary mules (see #s 5, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15), includes in his recent novel The Crossing (1994) the following dialogue about a mule whose recalcitrance proves insufferable to the artistic temperament of a singer assigned to tend him in a road company:
What was it he done to the mule?
He tried to cut off the head with a machete. . . .
I wouldn’t have thought you could cut off a mule’s head with a machete.
Of course not. Only a drunken fool would attempt such a feat. When the hacking availed not he began to saw. . . .
What happened to the mule?
The mule? The mule died. Of course
5. Drowning. This is Faulkner’s most commonly employed means of dispatch for the mules in his works. In the flood scenes he renders so effectively, we inevitably find drowned mules floating down river. As opposed to the train-struck animals in “Mule in the Yard” (see # 3), which are instrumental in developing motive and plot, Faulkner’s drowned mules tend to fall into the decorative or ornamental category, employed chiefly for drama, mood, and atmosphere. In As I Lay Dying (1930), for example, Darl recreates a wagon disaster in the surging stream: “Between two hills I see the mules once more. They roll up out of the water in succession, turning completely over, their legs stiffly extended as when they had lost contact with the earth”. In the “Old Man” sections of The Wild Palms (1939), the flood throws forth its “charging welter of dead cows and mules and outhouses and cabins and hencoops,” and Faulkner’s prose strikes an elegiac note as the convict’s skiff rides “even upon the backs of the mules as though even in death they were not to escape that burden-bearing doom with which their eunuch race was cursed”. Before the ordeal ends, the accumulation of mule carcasses reaches almost cosmic proportions as the stranded convict remembers “that other wave, the second wall of water full of houses and dead mules building up behind him in the swamp”.
Robert Morgan’s story “Poinsett’s Bridge” (1989) picks up the drowned mule topos in distinctly Faulknerian terms: “The body of a mule shot by in the current, and then a chicken coop”; but Cormac McCarthy (see #s 4, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15) varies it in Blood Meridian (1985) by having a mule drowned intentionally: “The Yumas were swimming the few sorry mules . . . across the river. . . . Downriver they’d drowned one of the animals and towed it ashore to be butchered”. (On recurrent uses of mules as culinary items see # 14.)
That the image of the drowned mule also occupies a subliterary folk status in the South is perhaps attested by a common simile in which a wealthy person is said to have “enough money to burn up a wet mule.”
6. Falls from cliffs. The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches. Mules are shot, roasted, drowned, knifed, and slain by thirst; but the largest number, 50 out of a conducta of 122 mules carrying quicksilver for mining, plummet from a single cliff during an ambush, performing an almost choreographic display of motion and color, “the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites. . . . Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment”. (See also #s 4, 5, 7, 9, 14, 15.)
. . .
7. Fall into subterranean cavity. Near the conclusion of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God (1973), “Arthur Ogle was plowing an upland field one evening when the plow was snatched from his hands. He looked in time to see his span of mules disappear into the earth taking the plow with them” (195). These doomed mules qualify as highly functional in the story, since a search for their bodies leads to the discovery of a number of human corpses stored in the caves underground for sexual use by the necrophiliac Lester Ballard. (See also #s 4, 5, 6, 9, 14, 15.)
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9. Gunshot wounds. The high quotient of gunplay in southern fiction quite naturally extends to some of the mules that grace its pages. . . .
Mules absorb lead throughout much of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), one providing a shield against incoming fire: “He . . . crouched under the ribs of a dead mule and recharged the pistol”.
. . .
14. Stab wounds. . . .
But mules are consumed readily by man, beast, and fowl in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (1985), and a character in Bernice Kelly Harris’s Purslane (1939) finds the practice a perfectly acceptable topic for mealtime conversation: “Uncle Millard near the foot of the table was telling about the Christmas dinner he ate in the pesthouse years ago, declaring it was fried dog and mouse stew with a slice of boiled mule”.
15. Thirst. Alkali flats in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (1985) yield no shortage of “the black and desiccated shapes of horses and mules. . . . These parched beasts had died with their necks stretched in agony in the sand”
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18. Submersion in domestic metaphor. Once again, Cormac McCarthy creates an exclusive category (see # 4) with a scene in Cities of the Plain (1998):
When he turned around Billy [Parham] was standing in the doorway watching him [John Grady Cole].
This the honeymoon suite? he said.
You’re lookin at it.
He leaned in the doorframe and took his cigarettes from his shirtpocket and shucked one out and lit it.
The only thing you ain’t got here is a dead mule in the floor.
In Greek drama, acts of violence or sex were “ob skena” and had to take place off stage. Thus, the horrific violence of Oedipus gouging out his eyes is not shown, but rather reported by a messenger. We see the same tradition in Shakespeare, of course, as well as the modern novel. And while many writers elide scenes too taboo or offensive to the sensibilities of the general reading public, books like Ulysses, Lolita, and Tropic of Capricorn, demonstrate that novels are often the site of debate over what can and cannot be shown or described or articulated plainly in our culture. Our concept of “the obscene” (the Greek “ob skena” simply translates to “off stage”) demands that certain actions might only be referred to or implied, but not graphically depicted, that the offensive action takes place out of our vision. The great lie or paradox of the obscene then is that in pushing the offensive action off stage, the author necessitates that the audience must envision that very action that was removed, that they must articulate their own understanding or schema or representation of what is taboo. While this strategy can often be quite effective and affecting (think of Tarantino pulling the camera away as Mr. Blonde cuts off the cop’s ear in Reservoir Dogs), in a character-centered novel it can also lead to a larger denial, a larger exclusion. What if one’s whole life was obscene? In his third novel, Child of God, Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a man who has been pushed from life’s stage, who exists in the uncanny and indigent margins of society.
The ersatz protagonist of Child of God, Lester Ballard, is a poor, stooped, abject wretch of a man. The book opens with Ballard losing his house in a humiliating debacle. From there, he wanders the earth, finding an abandoned shack and barely eking out the means to leave. Ballard is an outsider, literally, always looking in at the lives of more normal, more stable people. His voyeurism leads him to creep up to parked cars to spy on the lovers inside. Wanting some connection or sense of love–or perhaps just out of general dejected weirdness–he masturbates against the cars, watching the people inside. His identity as voyeur is magnified in his only apparent skill. Ballard is an ace sharpshooter who carries his rifle almost everywhere he goes, surreptitiously spying on the normal folks through its lethal scope.
As the book develops in McCarthy’s spare, terse prose, Ballard becomes more and more unhinged. Everywhere he goes he is slighted or outright rejected and cheated by his fellow man. The indignities and affronts against Ballard range from being falsely accused of rape to simply being ignored by his neighbors. At the same time, Ballard is a creep, a loser, and seems largely deserving of this treatment. And yet, as McCarthy points out early in the novel, he is a “child of God, much like yourself perhaps.” This early call to identify with Ballard as a fellow human being is constantly strained by his wildly antisocial behavior, and yet it’s McCarthy’s genius as a writer that anchors the novel in some measure of sympathy for such a wretched anti-hero. When a young girl rejects Ballard’s advances, she taunts him, saying, “You ain’t even a man. You’re just a crazy thing.” In many ways, this is the major question of the novel: Is Ballard a man, or a thing? What makes a person a person, and not simply an object estranged from the human race? To test this question, McCarthy has Ballard plumb almost every conceivable taboo, from murder to arson to necrophilia. However, Ballard isn’t the only one in these Tennessee backwoods who behaves despicably: there’s the father who rapes his daughter, the gangster behavior of the Ku Klux Klan, and the mob justice of the townspeople as a whole. Still, Ballard’s descent into violence and madness–graphically portrayed by McCarthy–is the central action in this compelling novel.
Readers looking for redemptive story arcs or tales of heroism will likely be turned off by Child of God, and squeamish readers will probably not get past the first fifty pages. Those interested in McCarthy’s fiction will find more in common here with the visceral grit of The Road or Blood Meridian than the reflective romanticism of his “Border Trilogy” novels (including crowd pleaser All the Pretty Horses). Child of God is in many ways a response to the Gothicisms of Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, and certainly bears favorable comparison to those writers’ works. And like those writers’ works, McCarthy’s novel has its challengers–just as recently as 2007 an English teacher found himself in quite a bit of trouble for loaning the book to a student. Those who see the book as obscene are perhaps right, in the sense that the word implies “that which must be shown off stage.” However, one of the legal definitions of obscenity necessitates that the work “lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value,” a claim that I do not think can be seriously substantiated against Child of God. Don’t believe me? Read it for yourself.