John Grady Cole, who works on a ranch in New Mexico in the 1950s, falls in love with a young prostitute, putting him on a collision course with the girl's pimp. John works with Billy Parham, who is a bit older and often looks out for the younger man. They share stories with the other ranch hands, though they know their way of life is fading away, and that the US Army has plans to purchase the land where they work and close down the ranch operation.
The two visit a whorehouse in Mexico, where John first encounters the girl, whose name is Magdalena. She appears to have an otherworldly aspect, angelic but also somewhat possessed. Magdalena suffers from frequent seizures, which makes her somewhat unfit for her profession, despite her beauty.
John goes back to the whorehouse and offers to buy the girl's freedom, but her pimp Eduardo refuses. Against Billy's advice, John then attempts to spirit the girl away, but one of Eduardo's associates kills her. John finds her body and returns to kill Eduardo.
The two have a knife fight in a dark alley, where John kills the pimp. But he suffers a deep wound to his stomach, such that he is trying to hold his organs in with his hands when Billy finds him. Billy tries to get John to safety, but John dies as well.
For the next few decades, Billy passes through life in a series of occupations and events that carry little meaning for him. As a much older man, he has an encounter with a strange man while sleeping beneath a freeway overpass. Billy thinks the man is Death personified, but the man says he is not. They discuss the strange paths one's life takes, and when he leaves, Billy finds a family that takes him in as a boarder to help with their horses.
Best part of story, including ending:
McCarthy's sparse prose style is famous, but for a good reason. The directness with which his characters speak, which is also reflected in the narration, lends power to the story of love lost and the apaprent meaninglessness of life.
Best scene in story:
Early in the novel John Grady Cole and Billy Parham are hanging around, doing nothing, talking about nothing, when they see a coyote appear on the ranch property. John wants to get the gun to shoot it, but Billy predicts it will be gone in seconds. The coyote lazily looks in their direction and disappears over the ridge. A seemingly pointless scene, but one loaded with foreshadowing about the disappearing way of life of the Old West ranch, and the temporary and fleeting nature of life.
Opinion about the main character:
Billy Parham emerges as the "main" character, if only because he survives the longest. There is not much to like or dislike in him; he simply is. However, one can come to admire his straightforward way of life, colored as it is by tragedy that took place before the novel began, and that occurs within its pages.