Ty Ty Walden is a widower who owns a small farm in Georgia, just across the border from South Carolina. His daughter, Rosamund, is married to Will Thompson, a worker in a cotton textile mill. Another daughter, whom everyone in the novel refers to as Darling Jill, is unmarried. His son, Buck Walden, is married to the beautiful Griselda. Buck and Griselda live on the farm with Ty Ty, and along with Ty Ty's other (unmarried) son, Shaw.
Ty Ty is obsessed with finding gold on his land. Ty Ty, Buck, and Shaw spend their entire time digging holes on the farm. Ty Ty has promised to donate any profits generated by a 1-acre (4,000 m ) parcel of the farm to the church, but is terrified that gold will be found on "God's acre". So he keeps moving the acre around. Only two African American hired hands, Uncle Felix and Black Sam, do any farming on the property, and the Waldens largely live off loans and what little income Felix and Sam generate.
Another important character is Pluto Swint, an obese and lazy farmer seeking election as county sheriff. Pluto sexually desires and wants to marry Darling Jill, who constantly humiliates him. The novel is told from a third-person perspective.
The novel is set in the early 1930s. The local union of mill workers was locked out by management 18 months ago after they protested against a wage cut. Extensive poverty now afflicts the towns of Scottsville and Clark's Mill and the Horse Creek Valley (where the Waldens live). Will fantasizes about entering the mill and turning on the power again to bring employment back to the townspeople.
The novel opens with Pluto Swint arriving at the Walden farm to announce that he is running for sheriff. Pluto mentions that an albino will be able to dowse for gold, and tells Ty Ty that an albino was spotted in the southern part of the county. Ty Ty, Buck, and Shaw drive off to kidnap the albino. Pluto and Darling Jill drive to the Thompson house in Scottsville, and spend the night there. The next morning, Will makes love to Darling Jill while Rosamund sleeps in the same bed next to them. Rosamund wakes, beats Darling Jill with a hair brush, and attempts to shoot Will. Will flees the house. Rosamund and Darling Jill reconcile; they both realize that Will (who is sexually promiscuous) will never love either of them, yet they cannot stop loving him.
That night, Pluto drives Rosamund and Darling Jill to Ty Ty's house near Augusta. On the way, they talk about Jim Leslie, another son of Ty Ty's, who started as a mill worker and married a rich man's daughter. Jim has become a wealthy cotton broker who now snubs mill workers as "lint-heads". Ty Ty, Buck, and Shaw return with the albino, a boy in his late teens named Dave Dawson. Ty Ty speaks at length about Darling Jill's beauty. After supper, Dave takes Darling Jill into the woods and has intercourse with her. Ty Ty and Buck search for them, and then watch them make love.
The second day, Will arrives at the Walden farm. Buck and Shaw (who suspect that Will is seducing Griselda) engage in a fist-fight with him, but Ty Ty breaks it up. Will talks to Dave, who says he does not want to return to his poverty-stricken home in the southern swamps. That night, the family drives into town so Ty Ty can ask his estranged son Jim Leslie for a loan. Ty Ty, Darling Jill, and Griselda meet with Jim, who gives Ty Ty $300. Jim tells Griselda that he sexually desires her and she must sleep with him as payment for the loan. She refuses. Jim attempts to sexually assault her, but fails. Later that night at the Walden farm, Ty Ty and Buck discover Dave and Uncle Felix asleep in the barn. A short time later, Ty Ty watches Darling Jill undress. (There are undercurrents of incest throughout the novel.)
The morning of the third day, Pluto drives Will, Rosamund, Darling Jill, and Griselda back to the Thompson house in South Carolina. Will goes out drinking. When he returns that afternoon drunk, he forces Griselda to strip naked in front of the others. He chases Griselda into another room of the house, and they have sexual intercourse all night long. Rosamund, Darling Jill, and Pluto watch and listen through the open door. Darling Jill becomes sexually aroused by Will's behavior. Rosamund, Darling Jill, Pluto, and Griselda talk the next morning, but do not discuss what happened.
During the fourth day, Will learns that the mill owners have brought in out-of-state security guards to keep the plant closed. He and some other men break into the plant and turn the machinery on. The guards kill Will. That night, Darling Jill has intercourse with Pluto.
Will is buried on the morning of the fifth day. That afternoon, Pluto drives Darling Jill, Rosamund, and Griselda to the Walden farm. Ty Ty, Buck, and Shaw learn of Will's death. Buck suspects that Griselda has been unfaithful with Will. The family argues ferociously during dinner, and Buck runs out of the house and does not return. Pluto also leaves that night.
On the morning of the sixth day, Jim Leslie arrives at the farm. The text implies that he is demanding sex with Griselda. At that moment, Buck returns. Seeing what are Leslie's intentions, he shoots and kills Jim– his own brother. Ty Ty begins obsessively digging. In the final paragraphs, it is implied that Buck commits suicide with a shotgun.