Sam Rave, a young reporter arrives in Dancyville, Tennessee in 1948 after flunking out of the University of Missouri.
Sam is one of the first people on the scene when Honey Boy Cunningham is found dead. Cunningham, 17, belongs to the town’s most prominent family. He has dressed as a girl and taken poison.
Sam’s curiosity leads him to the story of a bootlegger named Marion Whitlow, who was shot down at the town’s only stoplight the year before.
The novel is built around the lives of Whitlow and Civvy Swain. The story is told as Civvy, the narrator, remembers it in 1977.
Whitlow is the child of hardscrabble sharecroppers, orphaned by the age of 16. All of his life he is a tramp and an outlaw.
Civvy Swain takes him into her home when he is a teenager.
In 1933 when he is 26, Whitlow is working for a moonshine ring that runs whiskey from Tennessee to Chicago. The ring operates a huge still on a barge that steams up and down the Loosahatchie River.
One spring day, he sets out on what will be his last run. Whitlow intends to steal the truck and run away with Delanie Gasconade, a siren who has seduced him. Delaine is the girlfriend of a vicious gangster.
Dancy County Sheriff Hot McCool and his deputy Rip Harvey ambush Whitlow. Whitlow kills McCool. Harvey panics and flees, but Whitlow is arrested.
Two rich men in Dancyville, Aaron Reuben Douglass and Doc Gaffron, who owe Whitlow a big debt, make sure he has a racehorse lawyer and use their influence on the trial judge.
Whitlow escapes the electric chair and is sentenced to 20 years in prison
Civvy manages to shame Douglass into getting Whitlow paroled in 1941 on the condition that he join the Army. He serves with Patton’s Third Army in Europe.
After the war, Whitlow begins small time bootlegging again. He is shot and killed getting off a bus with a suitcase filled with whiskey. Harvey and Honey Boy are at the scene. Harvey lies and says he killed Whitlow.
Honey Boy poisons himself, and Sam enters the story.
Civvy is the major narrative voice of the story