Hazel Motes is the grandson of a preacher. After serving in The Korean War, where he didn't so much lose his faith as realize that he never wanted that faith in the first place, he returns to Tennessee. He finds living without Christ to be more complicated than he expected, and that it's harder to give up preaching than it was to renounce Jesus.
Hazel finds himself standing on the hood of his car and expounding—for everyone with ears to hear—on what he calls the Church Without Christ, where "the deaf don't hear, the blind don't see, the lame don't walk, the dumb don't talk, and the dead stay that way." His only follower is Enoch Emery, an 18-year-old who believes he has "wise blood" that tells him secret things. Enoch thinks modern man needs a new Jesus; his first candidate for the position is Hazel Motes, and his second is a mummy in a local museum. Hazel wants nothing to do with Enoch's search, and finds himself fighting corruption in his nascent anti-church: The evangelist Hoover Shoats snatches Hazel's message, renames it The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, turns it into a money-making scheme... and gets more followers than Hazel ever did.
Meanwhile, Hazel associates with Asa Hawks—an itinerant preacher who blinded himself with quicklime to prove his faith—solely so he can rebuff the preacher's attempts to redeem him. And he becomes increasingly frustrated as Asa does nothing of the sort. Hazel's attempt to seduce Sabbath Lily, Asa's daughter, are similarly frustrated when it becomes clear that she's just as interested in seducing Hazel.
Eventually, in spite of Hazel's best efforts, God's grace finds him and leaves him a changed man. But it's not entirely clear whether or not he was saved by this encounter.
Provides examples of:
- The Alleged Car: Hazel is quite proud of his car, but the description makes it clear that it's a jalopy.
- The Atoner: Hazel is reduced to this at the end of his life.
- Black Comedy
- Blind Seer: Intentionally invoked by Asa Hawks. He's faking on both counts.
- Car Fu: Hazel kills his doppelganger by running him over with his car.
- The Comically Serious: Hazel responds to nearly every confrontation by reciting the nihilistic credo of his church. Brad Dourif is especially good with this in the film version.
- Department of Redundancy Department: The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ
- Eye Scream: The preferred method of blinding oneself is quicklime in the eyes.
- Fille Fatale: Sabbath Lily Hawks, albeit an unlikely one.
- Identical Stranger: After Hazel cuts off ties to Hoover's Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, Hoover finds another man who looks a lot like Hazel—and even has a similar car—to act as his "prophet".
- Meaningful Name:
- Hazel Motes' last name is reminiscent of Jesus' admonition to remove the plank of wood from your own eye before you complain of the mote in your brother's eye.
- Asa is a raptor in two senses. He's a thief, and since his last name is Hawks, he's also a bird of prey.
- Police Brutality: A policeman catches Hazel driving without a license, so he pushes Hazel's car over an embankment, destroying it. At the end of the novel, two cops find Hazel nearly unconscious in a ditch, and one of them gratuitously knocks him out with his billy club.
- Sinister Minister: Asa Hawks, though he's a pretty ineffectual villain.
- Southern Gothic