As Going Bovine begins, sixteen-year-old Cameron Smith wants nothing more than to make it through life with the least possible effort. Unfortunately, he has little time to live at all. After he experiences a series of bizarre hallucinations, he is diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob (mad cow) disease, a fatal brain disorder.
Cameron is admitted to a hospital, where he receives a visit from Dulcie, a punk-rock angel in fishnets, who explains that his strange disease is caused by dark matter leaking into the universe as a result of a physics experiment. Only Dr. X, the physicist who performed the experiment, can close the hole, thereby saving the universe and possibly curing Cameron of his disease—but nobody knows where he is. She urges Cameron to embark on a quest to find Dr. X and save himself.
Cameron knows that Dulcie is probably a hallucination, but he thinks, “Why the hell not?” The doctors at the hospital cannot cure him, so he might as well try to do it on his own. At Dulcie’s urging, he invites his roommate, a neurotic video game addict with dwarfism named Paul “Gonzo” Gonzales, to join him on his journey. The two of them escape the hospital and set out to search for Dr. X.
Cameron and Gonzo make their way to the bus station and board the only bus available: the Fleur-de-Lys to New Orleans. Dulcie encourages Cameron to follow signs that only he, with his Creutzfeld-Jakob hallucinations, is able to recognize. Following tips from billboards and matchbooks, he decides to seek out the bar where a famous jazz musician, Junior Webster, used to play. Webster is supposed to be dead, but he greets Cameron and asks to speak with them. He explains that the Wizard of Reckoning, a figure who seems to be death itself, is chasing Cameron. Junior performs in front of a large crowd, and for the first time in his life, Cameron understands how music can move a person emotionally.
Next Cameron and Gonzo board a bus to Florida. Somewhere in Mississippi or Alabama, the boys get out of the bus to stretch their legs and end up getting stranded. They meet two teenagers named Daniel and Ruth, who take them to a place called CESSNAB: the Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack-‘n’-Bowl. This church is essentially a big mall where kids are supposed to buy what they like, win at everything, and live in eternal happiness. Cameron spends a few days bowling perfect games and drinking vanilla smoothies any time he feels the tug of sadness. He almost forgets his mission until he meets a dissident he nicknames Library Girl, who points out that life without struggle is no life at all. Library Girl incites dissatisfied CESSNAB kids to rebellion, and Cameron and Gonzo flee.
That night, Cameron and Gonzo stay at a cheap hotel. Cameron cannot sleep, so he goes to a gas station and joins some kids on the way to a keg party. At the party, he meets a talking yard gnome who claims to be a Norse god, Balder. Balder begs Cameron to free him. Cameron proclaims the gnome free, and Balder comes to life and pledges to help Cameron on his mission.
The next day, Cameron, Gonzo, and Balder stop for breakfast at a restaurant called the Konstant Kettle. Flaming creatures called fire giants, who are made of dark energy, attack them. Cameron and his friends escape, but the Konstant Kettle is destroyed and the police think the boys are responsible. Cameron buys a car, a Cadillac...
(The entire section is 1389 words.)