A Part One
The first section of this novel has six chapters-one chapter focused on each of the five main characters, and then the sixth concerning their continuing relationship to one another. The first two chapters take place much earlier than the continuing action of the rest of the novel. The first chapter introduces John Singer, the deaf-mute, and it is written in the vague, fable-like tone that all of the parts concerning Singer are told in. His relationship with another mute, Antonapoulos, is explained: they live together and spend their free time together, but after ten years Antonapoulos starts showing erratic behavior-stealing from the cousin he works for, exposing himself in public, etc. Singer spends all of his money trying to make restitution for his friend’s crimes, but the cousin has Antonapoulos committed to the state insane asylum two hundred miles away. Singer moves into the boarding house owned by the Kelly family and begins eating his meals at the New York Cafe. The second chapter takes place one night at the cafe: all of the five main characters pass through this chapter, but it is primarily about the cafe owner, Biff Brannon. When he is coming off of his shift and going to bed, his wife is rising to go to work. Brannon admits to his wife that he has a fondness for what he calls “freaks.” Their conversation is about how to handle a third main character, Jake Blount, who has spent every night at the cafe since arriving in town twelve days earlier: he gets drunk, doesn’t pay his bills, and terrorizes the customers. Mick Kelly, a twelve-year-old girl from town, comes in to buy a pack of cigarettes. Blount leaves briefly and returns with Dr. Benedict Mady Copeland, a black physician, insisting that he will buy him a drink in defiance of segregation laws, until Dr. Copeland shakes his grip and leaves. Singer, the deaf-mute, takes Blount home to sleep off his drunkenness.
Throughout the rest of this section the backgrounds of the characters are revealed. Mick Kelly watches after her younger brothers throughout the summer, and she is obsessed with music. She recalls a Mozart melody she heard and she tries to make a violin out of an old ukulele. She is also brash, offensive, and vulgar to the other members of her family. Jake Blount takes a job with the carnival that moves around town, and he dreams of leading a revolution against social injustice. He strongly opposes racism and holds Marxist views about economic inequality, but he distances himself from everybody except Singer because of his tendency to get drunk and argue. Dr. Copeland does not get along with his children-as an educated black man in the South, he feels that blacks have to rise above their station, and he is disappointed that his children are average. When Singer goes away for a week to visit his friend at the end of this section, all of these characters are worried, because they each feel that he is the one person who understands them.
B Part Two
Most of the action in the book takes place in the long middle section, which spans fifteen chapters. Mick enters Vocational High School, and, in order to get to know her new classmates, she throws a party, dressing in girl clothes for the first time; she is disappointed when the rowdy neighborhood children crash the party, although her new classmates do not seem to mind. Biff’s wife dies, and he becomes more withdrawn, more self-involved, and he takes on effeminate traits such as wearing perfume. Doctor Copeland’s son William is arrested and sent to prison, and, at the request of his daughter, Portia, the doctor attends a family function, at which his father-in-law, a farmer, angers him by talking about God: he lets his anger show, alienating his family further. Mick’s younger brother, playing with a rifle, shoots Baby, who is Biff Brannon’s niece: her mother agrees to not press charges if the Kelly family will pay for Baby’s first-class hospital treatment, but the bills destroy the Kellys financially. In the middle of this section is a chapter about Singer visiting his friend at the asylum, and then writing him a letter. It is through this letter that readers find out what Singer thinks of all of the people who confide in him: he does not generally understand what they are talking about, and thinks they are foolish and crazy. Mick takes piano lessons from a girl at school, practicing in the gymnasium while the boys play basketball.
After weeks of being out of contact, William comes home: due to torture and abuse at the prison farm, he has lost his feet to gangrene. Dr. Copeland, going to see a judge he knows about the matter, is mocked and beaten by a deputy sheriff and thrown in jail for the night, crushing his dignity. Jake, who has seen racial tensions flaring at the carnival, goes to see the doctor upon hearing about these mistreatments: the two of them cordially agree to form an alliance to demand social justice, but they disagree about how to reach their goal, and the argument flares until racial insults are thrown. At the end of this section Singer goes to see Antonapoulos again, only to be told that his friend is dead. He goes home and kills himself.
C Part Three
The last section is about what happens after Singer’s death and how if affects the surviving characters, who counted on him to be their moral compass whether he understood them or not. This section is divided into four chapters labeled Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Night, respectively, of August 21, 1939. Doctor Copeland, the proud, educated man who could not tolerate his father-in-law’s simplistic religious groveling, is too ill to care for himself, and so he is taken away to the country, lying in the back of the farmer’s old mule-wagon. Jake Blount, who meant to be the man who could bring the races and classes together, takes part in a race riot at the carnival: after holding back at first, he finds himself joining in and swinging his fists ferociously. He leaves town with a sense of having accomplished nothing, but with hope for the next town he will end up in. Mick takes a job at Woolworth’s in order to help with the family’s mounting bills. It means giving up her dream of studying music. In the end she stops at the New York Cafe to have a beer and a sundae, indicating the mixture of child and adult at which she is frozen. Biff Brannon spends his time in the basement among the newspapers he has collected over the past twenty years, isolated from his customers and employees, living in his own world.