Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898
Returning from the Vietnam War to his native Savannah, Georgia, David Larson feels as “unremarkable” as when he left. This general sense of detachment is evidenced by his unemotional response to the loss of his parents in a traffic accident during his absence and the subsequent ease with which he distances himself from his sister because of her antiwar sympathies.
Purchasing a used car, David motors west. Chance lands him in Slut’s Hole, Wyoming, after he damages the car’s radiator while shooting at a jackrabbit. Forced to spend two weeks in town until his car is repaired, David acquires, in quick succession, a job and a place to stay. His time is largely divided among his undemanding caretaker chores at a highway rest area, his forays into Laramie with his new friend Howard Dale, and his life on the Sixbury ranch.
At the rest area, David engages in largely mindless tasks punctuated only by the daily arrival of the red-haired, gold-toothed prostitute Cecile, who offers entertainment to truckers, and by the short stopovers of highway motorists such as Damon Zacks, a preacher fascinated by the view from the cliff at the edge of the parking lot. David’s periodic trips to the city of Laramie are marked by barhopping and brawling and by an emotionally empty relationship with Sarah Newman, a counselor in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The heart of his existence, however, is the Sixbury ranch. David develops a close, comfortable relationship not only with Chloe Sixbury, the ranch’s elderly owner, but also with the land. “He liked the people and he loved the terrain,” Everett writes. In addition to helping out with the chores, David involves himself more and more in the affairs of Chloe and her son, Patrick. After discovering Patrick’s use of sheep as a sexual outlet, he convinces Sixbury to drive with him to the town of Casper to hire a prostitute for Patrick. Although she fails to stir Patrick’s interest, Olivia does become the temporary object of David’s concern and of his misdirected desire to redeem a wasted life.
His quest is interrupted by Patrick’s brief scuffle with his mother after she catches him in a sex act in the barn. Patrick runs away, and despite a hasty search, he is not found for some time.
Only after the inclusion of the abandoned child Kyongja, renamed “Butch,” into the Sixbury fold does Patrick reappear. He abducts the little girl, setting off an extensive search. A party of five men find the naked and molested Butch in a deserted cabin, and they chase after Patrick’s fleeing form. David shoots him in the right arm in an attempt to impede his flight, and the men, with the exceptions of Deputy Quinn Rutland and Howard Dale, conduct an impromptu lynching.
Although the men tell Sixbury that they never discovered who raped Butch, Sixbury seems to sense the truth. Nevertheless, David alternates between interpreting the lynching as “somehow beautiful” and thinking of himself as a criminal. He is comforted by a sermon delivered at the town’s only church, where the minister speaks of how a “bad thing need not be evil” if the intention is good.
Deciding that he needs some time away, David flies to Georgia to visit his sister and her husband. On the plane, he meets Katy Stinson, who becomes the object of his subsequent interest.
Back in Savannah, he is uncomfortable; he is depressed by the conformity of suburban life, upset over changes made to his parents’ house, and disoriented by the crowds and urban energy. David is touched only by some of the people whom he encounters, including a woman trapped in an early marriage and an elderly man who suffers from Parkinson’s disease but who is still interested in people and life. David returns to Wyoming without having become reconciled with his sister.
Once back, David makes the rounds in order to become reacquainted with familiar faces, and he hears that the police are asking questions about the night of Butch’s disappearance. David punches Howard Dale, whom he suspects of having told the authorities about what happened; he also courts Katy Stinson and thinks of going back to college to study ranch management.
This period of suspense and anticipation is interrupted by Sixbury’s stroke. David learns that she may never walk again, but the crisis puts an end to his feelings of being trapped by his new family; he realizes that he loves the elderly woman and the Eurasian child. Katy visits twice to cook meals, but she is overwhelmed by the situation. The police arrive, but Sixbury tells them that she had seen Patrick raid the pantry the night before. This lie puts an end to their inquiries.
While massaging Sixbury the next day, David spies a pistol in the drawer of her nightstand. Knowing that she cannot endure her current helplessness, he senses that she is contemplating suicide, for much the same reason that she had earlier bought a deformed sheep at auction with the sole intention of putting it out of its misery. Sixbury has already made a will leaving her ranch to David.
As in the case of the lynching, David does not intervene. He sits at the bottom of the stairs, with Butch half asleep on his lap, as the narrative ends.
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