Paul Hammer is shown around the village of Bullet Park by a real estate agent. The foibles and residents of Bullet Park, which is connected to New York City by a commuter railroad, are the subject of the real estate agent’s babble. Little or nothing is learned about the mysterious Mr. Hammer, who is about to buy a house.
Eliot Nailles is introduced to Hammer and his wife at church. Nailles is mildly irritated by the priest’s pun upon their names (Hammer and Nailles), which strikes him as having a kind of inevitability about it. The two most important people in Nailles’s life are his wife, Nellie, and his son, Tony, whom he dearly loves but has trouble approaching. Though she has pretensions in the arts, Nellie, coming home from a disastrous day in New York, is shocked by the sexual crudity of a play and other threats to her sensibilities. For Nellie and Tony, Bullet Park is a sanctuary. Nailles wins for his family this sanctuary by setting off daily for the city on the 7:56 to write copy for a mouthwash, Spang.
One day Tony refuses to get out of bed. The doctor finds nothing wrong with him. A psychiatrist gives Nellie a moral lecture about the lack of values of her class. A somnambulist expert gives Tony a series of tests and submits a bill for five hundred dollars. Nailles is distraught and cannot understand what is wrong with his son.
Mr. and Mrs. Hammer invite the Nailles to a dinner party, though they have been no more than introduced. The evening is a disaster. Mrs. Nailles insults her husband and ridicules suburban life: “All you have to do is to get your clothes at Brooks, catch the train, and show up in church once a week and no one will ever ask a question about your identity.”
That lack of identity appears to be illustrated a few days later when a man named Shinglehouse, a regular on the 7:56, commits suicide by throwing himself under an express train. Though the rhythm of life seems barely disturbed by the event, Nailles is deeply shaken. Returning home, he tries harder to communicate with Tony about what he feels, but Tony only sleeps. In his...
(The entire section is 863 words.)