Back when he was a boy in Tennessee, Hazel Motes spent a lot of time trying to figure out what happened to people when they got shut up in boxes and lowered into holes in the ground. When his preacher grandfather peered down at him, declaring how “Jesus would die ten million deaths before He would let [Motes] lose his soul,” and that “Jesus would have him in the end!” Motes didn’t want to hear it. “A deep black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin” took root.
At eighteen, Motes enlisted in the army. While recuperating from a shrapnel wound he had time to study his soul. Conclusion: he hasn’t one. Now he is twenty-two, honorably discharged, and angry enough to start a church.
Enoch Emery earns his keep guarding caged and listless animals he detests. When not earning peanuts at the zoo, he ogles the ladies at the public swimming pool. His other entertainment is reading the stories on the backs of cereal boxes at the grocery store.
Also he venerates. Whenever possible, he ventures into the “muvseevum,” the columned building with “MVSEVM” chiseled above the portico. He tiptoes past the sleeping guard to gawk at the mummified man in the glass case.
Motes and Enoch’s paths cross over a card table where a potato peeler salesman is being upstaged by Asa Hawks, a blind street preacher, and his bastard teen age daughter, Sabbath Lily.
The friendless Enoch decides to secure Motes’s friendship by stealing the mummified man. He envisions Motes showcasing it as his “new Jesus.” Enoch disguises himself with brown shoe polish, sunglasses, and detachable beard, breaks open the glass case, seizes the mummified man, and installs him in his boarding house room, in the freshly gilded cabinet where a slop jar once reposed.
Motes, meanwhile, is preaching the gospel of church without Christ and trying to uncover the truth about Hawks and Sabbath Lily. He hasn’t time for Enoch’s foolishness. He hasn’t much time, period. Jesus is stalking him and Jesus is a hard man to outwit.