Set in mountainous Sevier County, Tennessee, in the 1960s, Child of God tells the story of Lester Ballard, a dispossessed, violent man whom the narrator describes as "a child of God much like yourself perhaps." Ballard's life is a disastrous attempt to exist outside the social order. Successively deprived of parents and homes and with few other ties, Ballard descends literally and figuratively to the level of a cave dweller as he falls deeper into crime and degradation.
The novel is structured in three segments, each segment describing the ever-growing isolation of the protagonist from society. In the first part of the novel, a group of unidentified narrators from Sevierville describe Lester to the audience and frame him within that community’s mythology and historical consciousness. The second and third parts of the novel increasingly leave culture and community behind as Lester goes from squatter to cave-dweller to serial killer and necrophile as he becomes increasingly associated with pre-modern and inanimate phenomena.
The novel ends with the dehumanized and mutilated Ballard dying in incarceration, his remains eventually dissected by medical students and put on public display, while the long-hidden corpses of his victims are unearthed from his former subterranean haunt.