Child of God tells the story of a social outcast, Lester Ballard, and his descent into madness and evil. The book opens with an auction being held for Lester’s family property. An auctioneer attempts to sell the land, which was taken by the bank, but Lester is livid. He goes up to the auction block and threatens the auctioneer with a rifle, but is knocked to the ground by the sheriff. Lester is taken away and the auction continues on as before.
The next scenes depict vignettes of Lester’s everyday life. He has very few friends and spends most of his time on his own squatting in a decrepit two-room cabin or wandering the wilderness. He does go to visit his neighbor Fred Kirby and asks him for a drink. But when Lester says he can’t pay him back until later, Fred refuses, and Lester leaves angrily. The only other character Lester appears to be friends with is a dump owner, but Lester has alternative motives for that relationship. The dump owner has nine daughters that Lester is obsessed with, and who he unsuccessfully flirts with and propositions.
Lester has always been an outsider to the community. When he was a boy, he got in fights with kids in school. He also had a traumatic experience as a young man when his father hung himself. Now, his antisocial tendencies focus more around sex. When wandering outside one night, he sneaks up on an interracial couple having sex in a car, and watches them before getting caught and running off. Later, he spends several days in the forest and seems to be going mad. He finds a woman sleeping in a white nightdress under a tree and wakes her. They argue, and he rips her dress off before leaving her alone in the woods. Later, man named Darfuzzle comes to warn Lester that the girl went to the police, and that one other man was already arrested in relation to the incident.
The Sherriff eventually finds Lester and brings him in to the station, where the woman accuses him of rape, assault, and battery. He spends nine days in the Sevier County jail, where he befriends a black fugitive named John. John is presumably put to death, and two days later Lester is released.
Lester has a rifle that he carries everywhere with him, and is a very good shot. He used to con bird hunters out of their money in shooting competitions at the county fair. When Lester goes back to the fair, he wins three giant stuffed animals at a shooting game before the owner kicks him out. Later Lester goes to the home of one of his friends, bringing a robin that he caught. Only the friend’s wife, her daughter, and her mentally disabled child are there, so the woman gives Lester coffee as they wait for her husband. Lester gives the disabled child the bird to play with and he chews its legs off. Lester finds this amusing, and he also attempts to flirt with the daughter.
When out squirrel hunting, Lester finds a car idling with a couple inside. When he opens the car door, though, he sees that they are dead. He drags the dead man out of the car, and then rapes the dead woman. Lester steals the couple’s money and whiskey, before going back for the woman’s body. He takes her to his cabin and drags her up to the attic. The next day he goes into town and buys the woman fancy red underwear. That night, the temperature outside drops to six below, and Lester’s hearth causes a fire that burns the whole cabin down. He is only able to grab a few things before he escapes.
Lester begins moving what remains of his belongings into a nearby cave. Sometimes he goes back to his old home that was sold, and fantasizes about killing the new owner. He returns to his friend’s home with the disabled child. This time only the daughter is at home, and Lester propositions her. When she refuses, he shoots and kills her. To cover his tracks, he then sets the house on fire, but not before taking her body.
Lester is picked up by the sheriff, under suspicion that he started the fire in the cabin that he was living in. Withouth evidence, though, Lester is released. Lester now has several dead bodies hidden in his cave, and spends his days stalking the countryside. He frequently goes to the mountain overlooking his old land, watching the man who now owns it with his rifle ready.
Suspicion in the town rises when the sheriff and a deputy discover a car that had rolled down the mountain into a gully, but the couple that were supposed to be in it are no longer there. A boy also escapes from Lester when he is dragging the boy’s girlfriend into the woods. The townspeople begin searching for a serial killer. Lester sees the townspeople’s torches on his mountain at night, and moves his belongings across a flooded river and into a sinkhole.
Lester then returns to his old land and tries to shoot the man who lives there, but misses and hits the shovel he was holding instead. He shoots him again, in the chest this time, but they both take off running and in the chaos Lester is shot as well. He wakes up in a hospital room, missing an arm. A nurse comes in and tells him that he got his arm shot off, and that the man he shot is still alive.
The townspeople believe that he is the serial killer they were searching for. A group of hunters and men from town break him out, and tell him that they will kill him if he doesn’t say where the bodies are. At first he claims innocence, and they almost hang him, but at the last moment he says he can take them to the bodies. He brings them to the mountain, and they travel down through the caves. As the tunnels get smaller, eventually Lester goes through a crevice that none of the other men are small enough to follow through. The men berate themselves for letting Lester lose them.
Lester spends three days attempting to find another way out of the caves, but is lost and delirious. Eventually he finds a crack in the rock that he can see sky through, and begins to chip away at it. When it is big enough for him to fit through, he crawls out and emerges in a field. He then returns to the county hospital where he was initially being held. Instead of being put on trial, Lester is sent to a mental hospital, where he contracts pneumonia. He is sent to a state hospital and recovers, but dies two days after returning to the mental institution.
That spring, a farmer’s plow falls into a sinkhole in Sevier County. When the neighbor boys go into the sinkhole to investigate, they find the seven dead bodies that Lester had hidden in the cavern.