This is a very dark and unpleasant story of the rural south in the '70s. This is the tale of Joe Lon Mackey, who lives in the town of Mystic, Georgia. A few years earlier, Joe Lon was a football her on the local high school team. Now he's running a liquor store. His high school girlfriend, Berenice Sweet, left for college upon graduation, and it was revealed that, in spite of his successes, Joe Lon hadn't even learned how to read.
So his life after high school consists mainly in running his abusive and drunken father's liquor store, getting married to a woman he's basically indifferent to, having a couple of children with her to whom he's an absent and terrible father. His wife, Elfie, has aged badly, and since he never liked her in the first place, there's really nothing between them.
Once a year, Mystic has a snake roundup and forces them into a pit to kill them. Berenice returns for the day with a new beau named Shep. He and his friend Willard, meet up with a lawyer from Florida called Duffy Deeter, his girlfriend Susan, Berenice's younger sister, Candy. They go on an extended spree of drinking and driving around, where they take pride in causing as much chaos and harassing as many people as they can. They meet up with Berenice and Shep again, go back to Joe Lon's house and Berenice and Joe Lon get "busy" in a room while Elfie is trying to entertain the others.
While they're on their misadventures, a young black girl called Lottie May is abducted by the local sheriff, Buddy Matlow who rapes her. Not knowing what else to do, she goes to Joe Lon's sister Beeder for advice. Beeder is insane, and she tells Lottie to attack that which bothers her. Lottie is also losing her mind from the stress, and she begins seeing snakes everywhere. She finds Buddy Matlow, and thinking his penis is a snake, she castrates him and he bleeds to death.
While this is going on, Joe Lon wakes up after his night of debauchery and has to face up to the fact that Berenice is now permanently gone and his life has absolutely not worked out the way he'd been thinking it would. Not that he was completely stable to begin with, but he now begins actively losing his mind.
He goes to a revival meeting at the snake roundup, and the preacher compares snakes to Satan. Joe Lon then hears what's happened with Buddy, and is confronted by his wife about his sexual encounter with Berenice. He blacks out and is taken away to his father's house.
The novel culminates in the annual snake hunt. The atmosphere is chaotic and there's blood in the air. You can feel that this is going to end badly, and you're right.
What the snake hunt represents is the total failure of absolutely every social structure that Joe Lon might have depended on. This includes the ones he himself were responsible for, so it's not to say he doesn't bear responsibility as well. But his family is crazy, the sheriff is dead, for good reason, and the social structure of the town is collapsing into chaos.
Joe Lon loses his mind completely, and starts shooting people. He shoots the preacher, the deputy sheriff, Berenice and at least one person hunting snakes. When he runs out of bullets, the crowd rushes him and forces him down into a pit full of snakes. As he dies, he thinks he sees his sister and Lottie May watching him.
Best part of story, including ending:
I kind of liked this book, even though there's really nothing likable about it. It's very unpleasant and disturbing. Though the hateful characters are a product of the hateful atmosphere they live in, and that comes through, and that's why this book is redeeming.
Best scene in story:
The scene where Elfie confronts Joe Lon about his infidelity. She's angry, but she's still letting him get away with it. The contrast of this scene and a later scene where she's worried for him, and tells him she loves him, seems to tell the story of the relationship in a few lines.
Opinion about the main character:
Joe Lon is ultimately not a likable at all. I think that was the author's intention. However, he takes no responsibility for the complete mess his life is, and that is the least likable thing about him.