This is a moral tale, and, as usual, Evil is more interesting than Good.
The plot shifts smoothly toward the end of the novel. It beings by following a working-class west Texan, a welder, a good citizen but inured to violence by fighting in Vietnam, who stumbles by accident on the remains of a drug shoot out in the desert. He finds only corpses except for one mortally wounded survivor. The welder picks up the very substantial suitcase of cash left by and makes off in perfect anonymity. But he has a flaw as a thief: — he has a twinge of empathy for the man he left dying. The later had asked for water, and the welder was carrying none. After he has hidden the stash, compunctions grip him, and he drives, hours later in the night, back to the crime scene to succor the thirsty man. But newly arrived killers spot him. He escapes, but his truck has been identified. The novel thenceforward recounts hunting him down and ancillary confrontations and shootouts.
The representative of Evil is an Eastern European hit man; the representative of good is the local sheriff. The scenes of hunting and confrontation are tense and enthralling.
Another hit man, who was hired to kill the first and, predictably, is killed by him, describes him as a pathological killer, but he very self-consciously operates by a moral code, one that, like the welder, he sometimes fails to follow. There is something mythical about him; he kills with an unusual weapon that appears to shoot people through the head but leaves no exit hole. He is dark of hue with piercing blue eyes, perhaps a throwback to the Pleistocene European hunter-gatherers who bore that coloring. He has no empathy whatever and unhesitatingly kills people who even passingly impede his way, or merely irritate him by momentary contradiction. He is a sort of embodiment of Shopehaurian will —; by that I mean something like a mindless, aimless, non-rational urge. In his most complex scene he ambushes some one he has morally obliged himself to kill. He swore to the welder that he would kill this victim if the welder did not do something. Death prevented the welder from fulfilling his promise, but the hit man feels he is honor bound kill the second whatever the circumstance. He debates the question with his victim, and, contrary to his sense of his own freedom and power, the hit man in the end evokes fate by allowing the flip of a coin to decide.
The sheriff seems to have wandered in out of a Western Movie or Larry McMurtry. He is near to retiring from a life dedicated community service. The community he serves is the old West Texas, but his calling is disintegrating under him because of crimes related to drug smuggling. During most of his tenure no murders went unsolved, as in Westerns, but now strangers are killing one another in his world for strange reasons. He is well ware that without drug users there is no smuggling, and is puzzled by hippies, whom he sees as the substrate of moral degeneration that is making it impossible for him to continue to serve his real community and fulfill himself. He is the old man who no longer has a country. He is uxorious, emotionally reticent, and garrulous
I specify these characters by naming their roles. This is a moral parable after all. But each one is fully realized.
After the death of the welder the book waxes talkier. The hit man waxes philosophical; the sheriff calls on people significant to him merely to talk with them. Near the end he dutifully calls on a young woman to tell her her husband has been killed. He stands on the doorstep, 5-gallon hat in hand, and says he is sorry. She responds feelingly about what her husband's death means to her. He repeats that he is sorry. She says, "If you stand there and say you're sorry one more time I'm going to get my gun and shoot you." It a dark comic moment, but we share her feeling.
The title is the first line of Yeats' poem Sailing to Byzantium. The title of another West Texas novel, Horseman Pass By by Larry McMurtry is taken from Yeats' self-elegiac last poem, Under Ben Bulben. What is it that draws raw, dry West Texas to misty Ireland? Pride perhaps.