It's not hard to understand. Three buddies struggling to keep their Wyoming construction business afloat get a call from a California lawyer who wants them to finish building her mansion, and they think: This could be "the house that would change their fortunes."

They might be so eager to get away from roofing and drywalling jobs that they'd ignore questions like: Why did the last contractor quit a lucrative gig? And why does the owner want the house finished in only four months?

Huge bonuses have a way of dispelling such concerns, as was the case when Gretchen Connors offered that sum to Teddy, Bart and Cole, co-owners of True Triangle Construction. Therein lies the setup of "Godspeed," Nickolas Butler's intermittently effective but overwritten thriller that, at its best, is a bracing reminder that riches often come at a steep cost.

Those riches would solve a lot of problems, though. Teddy, a married Mormon, could use that money to pay medical bills. Cole, soon to be divorced, fantasizes not only about fancy watches and a nice townhouse but also about whether childless, never-married Gretchen could ever fall for him.

Only Bart says the job doesn't feel right. At Cole's insistence, they take the gig, but the pressure gets to Bart. As he did in his younger days, he turns to drugs to help him maintain the energy required for a backbreaking schedule.

Butler has thrown many other elements into this mix, including holdovers from the previous contractor who may be spying on the new crew, a pair of murders, a ruthless drug dealer and a health issue that might affect the outcome of the job.

The key to universality in fiction is to be specific. Equally important, however, is the ability to know which items to flesh out and which are trivial. Especially in the first half, Butler dwells on unnecessary back story and minor details that halt momentum. Readers don't need to know the foods Gretchen orders for lunch, or the items in a pastry display case, or particulars about how a construction company gets paid.

Yet if one has the fortitude to keep reading, one eventually reaches nifty plot twists and fine character sketches. Butler's writing sharpens as the story turns grisly, and he excels at describing mysterious elements, such as the strange gleaming that comes from beyond the property's hot springs.

"Godspeed" feels like a novel from a different era, with white, tough-guy protagonists driven by sex, money and power. Butler may not always know where to shine his spotlight, but he knows this much: A jog on a treadmill in pursuit of riches may produce fitness of a sort, but watch your step.

Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and BookPage.

By: Nickolas Butler.
Publisher: Putnam, 352 pages, $27.