Conservative attorney Roy M. Cohn offers court clerk Joe Pitt a job in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Justice Department, but Joe has to discuss the job offer with his wife, Harper. Often consumed by fantasies and fears, Harper hides in her home. When she wants to travel, a travel agent named Mr. Lies magically appears to her and offers to take her anywhere she wants. After Joe returns home, he and Harper fight about going to Washington. They also fight about her emotional problems and about the secrets he keeps from her.
Prior Walter reveals to his lover, Louis Ironson, that he has a cancerous lesion, a sign of advancing complications from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Prior jokes about it, but he fears that Louis might leave him. In truth, Louis does not know if he can stay with Prior to watch him die. One day, Joe finds Louis crying in the men’s room at the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse. Louis thinks Joe is gay and is surprised when Joe denies it.
Prior and Joe’s wife, Harper, are in each other’s dreams. In the dreams, Prior tells Harper that her husband is gay, and Harper tells Prior that deep inside, he is free of disease. For the first time, Prior hears a mysterious angelic voice call to him. Later, Harper asks her husband, Joe, if he is gay, but Joe insists he fights all his “indecent” desires. His behavior is correct, and that is all that matters.
Told that he, too, has AIDS, Roy threatens to destroy his doctor if he says “Roy Cohn is a homosexual.” For Roy, “homosexual” does not mean what it seems to mean. It does not explain who has sex with whom; rather, it describes one’s status and one’s power. Homosexuals have no clout, but Roy has clout. He could talk to the president or the president’s wife at any time. Roy has sex with men, but he reasons that because he is not homosexual, he does not have AIDS. The doctor advises Roy that an experimental drug called AZT might help him, but the drug has a two-year waiting list. Roy will have to call the president for help.
Prior becomes violently ill, and Louis, hysterical, takes him to the hospital. Afraid, Louis leaves him there. Joe tells Roy about his marital problems. Roy, who reveals that he is dying, passes this wisdom to Joe. Roy says that love is a trap, that responsibility is a trap, and that Joe should not be afraid to live alone.
Roy, who has been threatened with disbarment, wants Joe to take a job at the Justice Department so that he might protect Roy from his enemies. Roy’s enemies include the fancy lawyers with corporate clients who need the goodwill of the department. If he worked at the department, Joe could pressure these lawyers to leave Roy alone. Joe knows that this is unethical. An angry Roy tells Joe that ethics does not matter in the world of politics.
Joe and Louis fall in love. They feel that they are caught between their duty to love and their duty to themselves. Both fear and want freedom. They are children of the age: selfish, greedy, loveless, and blind. They become lovers, and Louis leaves Prior, saying he has to be free. Joe tells Harper that he has no sexual feelings for her. Harper, who is now heartbroken, asks Mr. Lies to take her to Antarctica.
Late at night, Joe calls his mother, Hannah Pitt, who lives in Utah, and tells her he is gay. Angry, she tells him to go home to his wife. Hannah sells her house and travels to New York. In a vision, two of Prior’s dead ancestors tell him that he has been chosen by the Angel. He then sees a huge book drop from the heavens and, more and more, feels doomed, as...