The plot is very straightforward - in a small rural New England town, a young woman named Lillian is being stalked by the local villain, Blackway. Her boyfriend Kevin left town in fear. When Blackway kills Lillian's cat, she goes to the Sheriff for help. The novel opens the morning after her cat's death. Lillian has slept in her car, curled up with a paring knife for protection, parked outside the Sheriff's office.
The Sheriff says he can't help her - that he can't arrest a man for what he intends to do, but hasn't done yet. But he tells her to go ask for Whizzer at the old mill, that he might be able to do something. At the mill, long defunct, Whizzer is drinking beer with a half dozen other guys. Nate the Great, a young, strong, and brash young man, and Les, who's really old but knows a lot of tricks, volunteer to help Lillian. The trio sets off to find Blackway.
From here, the narrative alternates between the search for Blackway, and Whizzer and the guys at the mill, drinking and shooting the shit and filling in the background information.
The great thing about this novel (or novella rather - it's a slim 160 pages, and easily read in one sitting) is how Freeman Jr. develops the villain, Blackway. First of all, Blackway is a classic name for a bad guy, summoning up fairy tales and old style quest stories. But the most brilliant thing is how we don't meet or see Blackway until the very end of the novel, during the final confrontation scene. We hear that he's been terrorizing Lillian, and we get a series of what seem like tall tales surrounding Blackway from Whizzer and the group of men drinking at the mill. Nate the Great repeats his answer of "I ain't afraid of Blackway," to most questions Lillian asks, and somehow, the more you hear this mantra, the more you get the impression that he really should be afraid; deeply afraid. We have no idea what Blackway looks like - tall, short, light or heavy build - or even how old he is. All we know is that everyone except Nate is scared shitless of him, including the local Sheriff. Blackway ran Lillian's boyfriend out of town with just a few words. It's a subtle, suspenseful, and effective building of a bad guy that definitely had me afraid of Blackway and thinking that if I were Lillian, I'd turn tail and get the hell out of town.
Nate the Great and Les play off each other perfectly. Nate's the young pup always ready to start a fight and prove himself, and Les is crafty enough to get them out of some really sticky situations relying solely on his wits and the surroundings (like a MacGyver of whorehouses and bar fights). They are a classic quest couple, as different and complimentary as Don Quixote and Sancho. The tension and violence increase the closer they get to Blackway, and meanwhile, the conversation among Whizzer and co. hints at new information that puts their quest in a new light. As the sun sets the trio moves toward the final confrontation. At this point I was really nervous and anxious to finally meet Blackway. And he didn't disappoint.
The whole novel takes place in the span of 24 hours. It's smart, concise, well-plotted, well-written, and very engaging. I'd recommend it to just about everyone.