Eddie Nye has few goals and little direction in life; as he tells his cellmate, his only plan upon release is to have a steam bath. After fighting to make his fifteen years in prison pass more quickly, he leaves his watch behind, not wanting to take anything of the prison with him. Another inmate, known as El Rojo, has other plans.
Eddie was imprisoned for trying to smuggle a boatload of marijuana into the United States. He was trying only to escape from a jealous husband and was unaware of the boat’s cargo; unfortunately for him, his lover abandoned him with the boat. Eddie served his full sentence, rather than getting early release, because he killed three men in retaliation for raping him in prison. He accepts his lot, seeing it all as a natural process. While in prison, however, he begins reading to pass the time and becomes caught up in trying to figure out “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Once out of prison, Eddie finds himself caught in one of El Rojo’s plans. As in the smuggling episode, he is unsure of what is happening to him and does not realize that he is a pawn in a larger game. When he realizes that El Rojo is trying to use him, he counterattacks and figures out part of El Rojo’s operation. In the meantime, he finds his brother Jack, who was also involved in the smuggling episode. Eddie and Jack plot to steal a shipment of cash from El Rojo to rescue Jack’s ailing investment company.
The novel is full of ambiguity that builds suspense. Eddie only gradually comes to realize the plot of which he is now a part; similarly, he slowly unravels what really happened in the smuggling incident. Through it all, he tries to decipher the meaning in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and figure out why the albatross was killed; this device is awkwardly symbolic of the private search for meaning that Eddie reconciles through a final brutal act.