The title Pop. 1280 refers to the population of Pottsville, Potts County, the smallest county in an unnamed southern state (probably Texas). At 1,280 people, the town is small enough that everyone knows everyone else, but it is large enough to have separate black and white sections, a train depot, a wharf on the river, and a whorehouse. The time is early in the twentieth century—early enough that when Nick goes to the city, he is impressed by the sight of “two, three auty-mo-biles.” Aside from the train, which Nick takes to the city, everyone either walks or rides horses to get around. This sounds innocent and bucolic, but Thompson drives home the filthy aspects of the time and place—filthy literally and symbolically.
There is very little specific given about Pottsville or any place in the novel. Instead, the settings are almost stage sets. Pottsville is a small town, Anytown USA, where the farmers come to market on Saturday and everyone goes to church on Sunday. There are very few secrets that are actually kept secret, and getting along with the pack is more important than any written law. Ken Lacey’s town is larger (even though it only includes 5,000 people), but it is equally generic. As for the specific interior places of Pottsville—the offices, the farms, the bedrooms—they are approximately as realized as the set on a soap opera. They are there for people to storm in and out of, to fight in, to die in, and that is about all. The same is true for exterior settings. There are, for example, no specifics given about “colored town” or the surrounding woods and river. The result is a focus on the interaction between characters and a generalized sense of small-town degradation.