Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
At once hilarious and horrifying, Don DeLillo’s White Noise dramatizes a contemporary American family’s attempt to deal with the mundane conflicts of day-to-day life while grappling with the larger philosophical issues of love, death, and the possibility of happiness in an uncertain world. The novel is divided into three sections. All incidents, images, and exchanges among characters in the first section, “Waves and Radiation,” culminate thematically in the second section, “The Airborne Toxic Event.” The third section, “Dylarama,” chronicles not only the direct effects of the “event” but also the indirect but even more profound changes in the way the characters subsequently see themselves and their world.
The novel’s first-person narrator is Jack Gladney, a college professor specializing in studies of Adolf Hitler. Many of the other characters are also in some sense observers of contemporary culture: Murray Jay Siskind, an Elvis Presley specialist; Jack’s other colleagues in the popular culture department; his son Heinrich, who translates technical information to his father and the reader; and his daughter Steffie, whose obsession with health has made her into an expert in drugs and medical matters. The bulk of the novel is less a sequence of important events than a series of dialogues concerning various interests and obsessions.
Immediately after the opening chapter, with its description of incoming college...
(The entire section is 603 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
White Noise probably succeeded mostly for its dramatization of a topical issue: the danger to the environment—and to humankind—represented by the many substances continually issuing from chemistry laboratories. While death from chemical poisoning is a major theme of the novel, however, it is only subsidiary to the grim awareness of inevitable death and annihilation that seizes everyone’s consciousness in the book. White noise fills up all frequencies, creating a steady hiss. In DeLillo’s imagination, it becomes a sobering metaphor for that low, monotonous, but steady small whisper of human mortality constantly filling up the otherwise unused frequencies of an individual’s mental processes.
White Noise has all the best features of a DeLiIlo novel: crazy characters presented with wit and imagination, language that carries its conceptions gracefully, several wonderfully conceived set pieces, and a major character who at the end braces himself against the world’s madness. It also has the failure of plot that is not unexpected in a DeLillo novel.
White Noise is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Waves and Radiation,” develops the comic characterizations and dwells on the ubiquitous noises that make up the background to everyday life; the “dull and unbeatable roar” of the supermarket, the “great echoing din” of the hardware store, and, most disturbing of all, a seven-hour spell of loud crying that...
(The entire section is 989 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary
As he has for the past twenty-one Septembers, Jack Gladney watches from his office the moving-in rituals of students arriving on campus. The amazing array of station wagons has arrived, laden with everything the incoming students will need for a successful year, and they crawl their way to the dormitories.
The vehicles contain suitcases with both lightweight and heavier clothing; bedding for inside and sleeping bags for the outdoors; equipment such as rafts, saddles, skis, backpacks, and bicycles; electronics such as radios, stereos (including records and cassettes), computers, mini refrigerators, and hot plates; sports paraphernalia like soccer balls, tennis rackets, hockey and lacrosse sticks, and bows and arrows; necessary personal items such as birth control and controlled substances; and of course junk food ranging from potato chips to cereal, fruit chews to popcorn, suckers to mints.
It is a spectacle to see. Students greet each other effusively, sometimes even with tears, after summers “bloated with criminal pleasures, as always.” The parents all look around in a daze, seeing “images of themselves in every direction.” Their suntans are perfect, their makeup is perfectly applied, and they all have the same cynical look on their faces.
The mothers are “diet trim” and seem to know everyone’s names; the fathers appear somehow substantial and are content just to wait until the process is completed. This ceremony, more than anything else that will happen all year, reminds parents that they are part of a collective, “spiritually akin, a people, a nation.”
Gladney leaves his office and walks down the hill into town. It is a quiet and rather staid old town where people sit on their porches in the shade of stately trees. He and his wife, Babette, and their children from previous marriages live in a house at the end of a quiet street that was once a wooded, hilly area. Now, far below, an expressway runs. At night, the sparse traffic provides a “remote and steady murmur” at the edges of the family’s sleep.
At College-on-the-Hill, Jake Gladney is the head of the department of Hitler studies, something he created in 1968. When he proposed building an entire department around Hitler’s life and work, the chancellor quickly acquiesced and the program became an “immediate and electrifying success.” (The chancellor, who later became an advisor to Nixon, Ford, and...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 2 Summary
Babette Gladney is “tall and fairly ample.” She has tousled, dirty blond, magnificent hair that she wears rather carelessly; on a more petite woman it would look too planned. Her husband tells her the moving-in spectacle was glorious, as always, and she is disappointed to have missed it. She is a bit disheveled, too busy with other, more important things, to worry very much about her appearance.
Her accomplishments are not great as the world measures greatness. She is a mother to her children, teaches adult education classes, and volunteers to read to the blind (such as Old Man Treadwell, who wants to hear stories from popular magazines such as the National Enquirer, the Globe, and the Star).
She is a lover of life, and Gladney enjoys watching her do her mundane activities. Babette makes him feel connected to the world in a way his other wives had not, and she is a refreshing change from the “self-absorbed and high strung bunch” in the academic community.
Babette chides him for not reminding her that today was the day and asks what the women were wearing. Gladney tells her they somehow looked like they felt entitled to their money. The Gladneys have a station wagon, too, but it is metallic gray and one door is completely rusted.
The couple does most of their living in the kitchen and the bedroom; the rest of the house is a necessary storage place for kids, stuff, and memorabilia of other lives and relationships. For Gladney, the random belongings carry “a sorrowful weight” and are a kind of foreboding of something on a grand scale.
Wilder, Denise, and Steffie join their parents in the kitchen. They talk about school supplies before each of them scrounges for what they want to fix for lunch; it is a comfortable, sprawling meal. Another son, Heinrich, enters the kitchen, surveys the scene, and promptly disappears out the back door.
Babette had planned to eat something healthy for lunch. As always, she feels guilty for not eating the wheat germ and yogurt she always buys; however, she also feels guilty if she does not buy it, if she sees it sitting in the refrigerator, or if she has to throw it away uneaten. Eleven-year-old Denise berates all of her mother’s wasteful habits, but Gladney defends Babette, claiming he is the one who needs to develop a more disciplined diet.
People generally trust those who have some substance to...
(The entire section is 478 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 3 Summary
At College-on-the-Hill, all department heads wear academic robes; the full-length, black, sleeveless tunics are puckered at the shoulders. Gladney likes the flourish the robes create when he makes the simple gesture of looking at his watch.
The Hitler department does not have its own building but is located in Centenary Hall; it shares the brick building with the popular culture department, known officially as
“American environments.” The staff of that department is composed primarily of New York transplants: “smart, thuggish, movie-mad, trivia-crazed.” They spend their time here studying the popular culture, things like bubble-gum wrappers and jingles for detergent.
The head of this department is Alfonse Stompanato, a big, glowering man whose prewar soda pop collection is on display in the building. Every teacher in his department is male, rumpled, and shaggy haired. They emit an aura of “pervasive bitterness, suspicion, and intrigue.” Murray Jay Siskind, a former sports writer, is an exception. He is a visiting lecturer on “living icons” and has invited Gladney to lunch today.
Although Siskind likes it here in the small town of Blacksmith and understands that studying movies and even comic books is necessary to study the culture, he is embarrassed that there are full professors in his department whose only reading material is cereal boxes.
He prefers this small-town setting to the heat and entanglements of the city. Everything there is connected to heat and generates even more of it; the heat is palpable and oppressive. He lives in an old boarding house near the insane asylum and is quite comfortable with his rather eccentric fellow boarders. He is happy here and likes being able to avoid complicated relationships with women.
Gladney established a wonderful Hitler program on campus and has made it what he wants it to be. Anyone in the region who mentions the name of Hitler also mentions Gladney in some way as being the unquestioned source of knowledge about the former dictator. College-on-the-Hill has attained international recognition because of the Hitler studies, which is a great achievement. Now Siskind wants to do the same thing with Elvis.
Several days later, Siskind and Gladney drive twenty-two miles to a tourist attraction known as “The Most Photographed Barn in America.” They pass five signs on the way there, and there are forty cars and a...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary
Because when times are bad people tend to overeat, the town of Blacksmith has a lot of overweight citizens. Everyone but the elderly seems to be in a “fever of eating.” Even though the elderly are not always mentally present, they are slim, healthy-looking, and well dressed.
Gladney walks to the open stadium behind the building where his wife is running up the stadium steps. He sits on the stone steps and watches her run to the top, stop to catch her breath for a few moments, and then walk back down the stairs. When she gets to the bottom, she stretches her neck and starts back up the steps. She is working hard. Gladney watches Babette perform this ritual three times before he meets her at the edge of the playing field and gives her a hug.
Babette is not afraid to get her hands dirty or to work up a sweat; in addition to running, she caulks and shovels snow. She plays word games with Wilder and reads erotic books aloud to Gladney in bed at night; she talks to animals and plans trips they will never take. Gladney, on the other hand, swims laps in the college pool, takes out the trash, and is easily frightened. Sometimes Gladney wonders who of them will die first.
As Gladney hugs his wife, a throng of uniformed girls appears and starts running on the cinder track. On the way home, they pass a string of hotels and Gladney says that Bee wants to visit at Christmas and can stay in Steffie’s room. Bee is Gladney’s seventh-grade daughter from his marriage to Tweedy Browner. She and her mother live in a Washington suburb, and Bee is having some difficulties adjusting after spending two years in South Korea. The girls met once at Disney World three years ago, so it will be fine.
That night the six Gladneys order Chinese food and watch television. Babette has a rule that the family must watch television together one night a week, hoping this will somehow “de-glamorize” television and reduce its power over the children—that “its narcotic undertow and eerie diseased brain-sucking power would be gradually reduced.” In reality, the evening is a kind of torture for all of them. After the family television-watching, Gladney usually reads about Hitler for hours.
In 1968, the college chancellor advised Gladney that he had to change his name and appearance if he wanted to be taken seriously as a Hitler authority. Jack Gladney willingly transformed himself into J.A.K. Gladney, although the...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 5 Summary
Jack Gladney feels as if he should enjoy his current “aimless days” because he fears they are somehow about to accelerate. At the breakfast table, Babette reads everyone’s horoscopes aloud; Gladney tries not to listen, although subconsciously he is hoping for some clue about his future.
He and Babette see Murray Jay Siskind at the grocery store, and it is obvious they have disparate shopping strategies. While the Gladneys’ cart is full of items with bright packaging and modern products, Siskind’s cart contains only a few items, all with the most generic packaging. His jar of roasted peanuts, for example, only has the words “Irregular Peanuts” in black, block lettering on a white label. As they talk, Siskind randomly examines and sniffs the products in the Gladneys’ cart.
Gladney introduces Babette to his friend, and Siskind explains that the “flavorless packaging” of the products he is buying appeals to him on two levels. He is saving money and he is also contributing, somehow, to the greater cause of saving the world from bright colors.
Babette notices Siskind has bacon in his cart and wonders if he gets to cook in his rooming house. He is content to be allowed a hot plate and says he is happy where he is. He reads the television listings and the ads in Ufologist Today, his seminar lectures are going well, his students take notes and ask questions, and he is able to answer them. Overall, he is rather surprised by his current situation.
When Babette leaves to shop in the frozen food section, Siskind remarks that Babette is an extraordinary woman with “important hair.” He hopes Gladney appreciates her “because a woman like that doesn’t just happen.” Undoubtedly she is good with children (she is) and has great strength in a family crisis (she does not—she dissolves into tears and worse). Nevertheless, Siskind loves her.
The three leave the supermarket at the same time, maneuvering around a bunch of paperback romances from a rack at the front of the store that a woman toppled. They stuff the Gladneys’ brightly colored purchases (double bagged, of course) into the back of the station wagon and then take Siskind and his lone bag of white groceries to his rooming house. They pass a policewoman in her minicab, scouting for vehicles whose parking meters have lapsed so she can write them a ticket.
The Gladneys experience a sense of contentment...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 6 Summary
Heinrich Gladney’s hairline is beginning to recede, and his father wonders if he is somehow to blame. Perhaps Gladney’s wife ingested something hazardous when she was pregnant, or maybe Gladney unknowingly raised him too close to some kind of nuclear or chemical dump site. (The word around town is that the sunsets here are much more intense than they were thirty or forty years ago.) This is a world in which man’s guilt is now compounded by technology, “the daily seeping falsehearted death.”
Fourteen-year-old Heinrich is a moody and evasive boy who is sometimes terrifyingly obedient. Gladney suspects that his son only accedes to his parents’ wishes as part of a silent reproach against them. Babette fears that Heinrich will one day end up as a mall shooter who will have to be taken out by a SWAT team.
While driving Heinrich to school, Gladney and his son engage in a lengthy philosophical argument about the weather. Heinrich remarks that the weather report said it was going to rain today; Gladney states that it is already raining, something he believes to be obvious based on the drops they both can see clearly on the windshield.
The boy is belligerent in his insistence that the senses cannot be trusted, a fact that has been proven in laboratories. Even the laws of motion are nothing but a hoax, and the only realities are found in the mind—and even that can be tricked.
Gladney poses a hypothetical question to Heinrich: if someone were holding a gun to his head and forced him to say it either is or is not raining right now, what would Heinrich say?
The teenager evades and dodges in what he thinks is perfect reasoning: nothing matters and nothing is real. Finally he claims that since neither he nor his father is wet, it must not be raining.
Gladney commends him on his “victory for uncertainness, randomness and chaos.” As the boy walks through the downpour and up to the school doors, Gladney suddenly yearns to be able to hold his son crushingly to his chest and protect him.
The next day is sunny, and the college campus is full of students enjoying the beautiful weather. Gladney only teaches one class now, Advanced Nazism. It meets three hours a week, is open only to qualified seniors, and is “designed to provide historical perspective, theoretical rigor and mature insight into the continuing mass appeal of fascist tyranny, with special emphasis on...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 7 Summary
Three evenings a week, Babette Gladney goes to the other side of town and teaches a course on proper posture to a group of adults in the Congregational church basement. Most of her students are old, and sometimes Gladney goes to watch her teach them how to sit, stand, and walk correctly. It is as if the adults can somehow postpone death if they practice proper grooming and personal habits.
Babette talks to her students about things of which they have undoubtedly never heard, yet they nod in agreement as she speaks to them as if it is their last great hope to redeem their bodies from a lifetime of bad habits: “It is the end of skepticism.”
Tonight Gladney walks home with Babette; in the moonlight their house looks old and washed out. The children are doing homework and the couple goes to their rather disheveled and certainly lived-in bedroom. They have a mild debate about what they want to do tonight, each of them wanting to do only what will most please the other. Babette finally says she will read her husband something erotic because she knows he enjoys it, but she refuses to read anything that contains common or vulgar vernacular for lovemaking.
Gladney is always honest with each of his wives, or at least honest about present things. There is always more they can share, of course, as marriages and memories accumulate. He and Babette share many things, and their sharing is a “form of self-renewal and a gesture of custodial trust.”
They talk about their parents, their childhoods, their friendships, their discoveries, their former loves, and their fears. (The one fear they do not discuss is the fear of death.) No detail is too small for them to share; they “create a space” between their feelings at the time and their feelings as they speak them now.
Gladney decides he wants to hear something erotic from the twentieth century and goes to Heinrich’s room to find a “trashy magazine,” the kind that contains letters people write about their sexual exploits and fantasies. Gladney thinks this is a kind of double fantasy: people write down their imagined thoughts and then have them read by people across the nation.
In a “stack of material,” Gladney finds several very old photo albums; he and Babette spend hours sitting in bed and examining the past. Several of the albums are at least fifty years old, and Gladney wonders who of them will die first.
(The entire section is 416 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 8 Summary
As the most recognized Hitler scholar in the country, Gladney has tried to hide the fact that he does not know the German language: he cannot speak, read, or understand even the simplest words or the most rudimentary sentences in German. Even his most inexperienced colleagues in the department know some German, and many of them are “reasonably conversant.”
Every Hitler studies major at College-on-the-Hill is required to study German for at least one year. Gladney’s failure makes him feel as if he is “living on the edge of a landscape of vast shame.”
Hitler even appeared to struggle with how best to express himself in his autobiography, so Gladney is not surprised that his efforts to learn the “fleshy, warped, spit-spraying, purplish and cruel” language are torturous. He tried to learn it once, but the rules, words, and syntax defeated him. What he knew he had to speak got stuck in the back of his tongue and would not come out of his mouth. Now Gladney is determined to try again to learn German.
He begins in mid-October and he knows his lessons must be kept secret because he is a renowned Hitler scholar and an imposing, recognizable physical presence. Siskind tells him about one of his fellow boarders who might be willing to teach Gladney what he desperately needs to learn.
Howard Dunlop is a bland man in his fifties, a former chiropractor who learned to speak German at some time in his past. Gladney does not ask about either circumstance. The lessons take place in Dunlop’s small, dark room; when Dunlop switches from speaking English to speaking German, it sounds to Gladney as if some kind of cord in the man’s larynx has been twisted or as if the man were somehow possessed.
Gladney takes notes and the hour passes quickly. Dunlop “manages a scant shrug” when Gladney asks him to keep silent about their lessons. On his way out of the decrepit building, he invites Siskind home for dinner.
After donning his corduroy jacket and telling his landlord about his leaky faucet, Siskind asks Gladney why he is so interested in learning German now. Next spring College-on-the-Hill will host an international conference for three days; actual Germans will be attending, so Gladney is motivated.
Siskind is fascinated by the mundane things he sees at the Gladney house. Denise is smashing trash in the compactor; Heinrich is having an inane telephone conversation;...
(The entire section is 457 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 9 Summary
The middle school in Blacksmith stays evacuated all week as both students and teachers are experiencing physical reactions to something. Men in Mylex suits with respirator masks sweep the building looking for hazardous materials. The offending material could be the ventilating system, paint, varnish, foam insulation, electrical insulation, rays emitted from computers, asbestos, adhesive on shipping containers, the cafeteria food, or something virtually undetectable. Denise and Steffie stay home all week.
Gladney and his family run into Siskind at the supermarket, the fourth or fifth time Gladney has seen him there and about the same number of times he has run into Siskind on campus. He works his way around Babette, seeming to smell her hair, as he commends her for the meal she prepared.
Wilder sits in the cart and tries to grab things off the shelf. Gladney thinks the boy is too old to be sitting in a shopping cart and wonders why Wilder’s vocabulary seems to be “stalled at twenty-five words.” Siskind says everything seems clearer to him here as he finds it easier to think about and observe things.
Gladney realizes how noisy the store is and how dramatically colorful, overly bright, and oddly in season all the fruit is. Steffie thinks Denise is strange; for example, she constantly reads the Physicians’ Desk Reference. Gladney is just glad she is reading something, but Steffie explains she reads it because she is trying to find out the effects of the substances Babette is using. This is news to Gladney.
Siskind still follows Babette, helping her push the cart and randomly smelling the groceries in it. He explains his theory that the grocery store is a place full of concealed symbolism that helps restore some of the divinity all humans lost at birth. It is bright and “full of psychic data.” The numbers, colors, energy waves, and codes only require deciphering and rearranging to help one prepare for death: people walking through the sliding glass doors into a timeless eternity of white light.
Siskind has always done his shopping in small, noisy, rather unpleasant delicatessens. In the city where no one notices the slow deaths, everyone is dying. Death is a “quality of the air,” and people know only a few useless facts about those who die. Gladney is interested in Siskind’s philosophic ramblings.
Steffie holds her father’s hand in a reassuring way,...
(The entire section is 493 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 10 Summary
College-on-the-Hill charges fourteen thousand dollars for tuition, Sunday brunch included; its students come from affluent homes.
Denise watches Babette unwrap a package of sugarless chewing gum and tells her this gum causes cancer in laboratory animals; Babette reminds Denise that she is the one who suggested this product to her mother. But that was before the gum came with a warning label.
Babette suggests that Denise can choose the lesser of the two harmful products, sugared or sugarless, and Steffie suggests Babette chew no gum at all. That is not an option, as Babette has to chew gum to help her quit smoking and tells Denise she is “making a fuss over nothing.”
The phone rings. Some neighbors want to come over; however, neither Babette nor Denise wants them to come and Steffie is stuck delivering the awkward verdict. Babette continues to insist that a little warning is meaningless since she only chews several pieces of gum a day; both girls sarcastically respond to her denial of the dangers.
Gladney stops in Heinrich’s room to find him playing chess with a man in prison; Heinrich is examining the board and thinks he has the man cornered. The boy has been playing chess with the man for months, and Gladney finally asks something about the prisoner. Most of their communication is confined to chess moves, although they occasionally exchange notes.
The prisoner only killed five people in Iron City because he was under pressure; the state trooper died later. The killer had only a small arsenal, “some handguns and a bolt-action rifle with a scope,” and did all the things deliberate assassins do. He made tapes to his loved ones asking them to forgive him, had been hearing voices talking to him through the television (telling him his time to make history was running out), made his way to a roof, and gunned down complete strangers.
The murderer told Heinrich he would do things less like a typical murder if he could do it again. Heinrich says all he writes about to the prisoner is that he is losing his hair.
Heinrich’s mother wants him to spend the summer with her at the ashram where she lives. When Gladney asks if he wants to go, Heinrich grows philosophical again and wonders how one is to know with certainty what one does or does not want to do. Perhaps his impulse to go—or not go—is based on mere synaptic impulses, similar to those that prompted the...
(The entire section is 499 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 11 Summary
Jack Gladney wakes up in a sweat at 3:51 a.m., riddled with paralyzing fear. He moves close to his wife’s warm body and finally falls asleep again. This time he is awakened by the smell of burnt toast, a smell Steffie loves. It is her treasured scent.
Babette and Steffie are in the kitchen; Gladney joins them. He feels old, as he will turn fifty-one next week. Steffie’s mother, Donna Breedlove, is about the same age as Babette and a contract agent for the CIA. When the phone rings and Steffie is distracted by a computer-generated marketing survey, Gladney tells his wife that Steffie’s mom used to pit people against one another and speak in foreign languages to create intrigue.
After a delicious meal (cooked by Siskind on his two-burner hot plate), the Gladneys move from the metal folding chairs to the bunk bed for their coffee. As a sportswriter, Siskind was always traveling; now he is happy to have a place he considers home, even if it is small, dark, and plain.
Gladney asks if he ever hears noises from the insane asylum next door; he does not. Siskind wishes his guests had brought their kids as he is convinced that it is children who are shaping the future of society. Even his young college students already are becoming irrelevant to advertisers and “mass-producers of culture.” Children are the only “true universal.”
Siskind asks Babette how many children she has. Wilder and Denise are hers and they live with the Gladneys; her eight-year-old son, Eugene, is living in the Australian outback with his father, who is doing research there.
Gladney notes that since Eugene is growing up without a television, the boy might be worth interviewing. He is a “sort of wild child, a savage plucked from the bush, intelligent and literate but deprived of the deeper codes and messages that mark the species as unique.”
Whereas some people believe that television is a form of great evil, Siskind has spent hours watching and taking notes and finds the medium a mystical, primal force in American homes. It is a mystic grid filled with concealed data in the form of colorful packaging, commercial jingles, diverse products, and untold “sacred formulas” that will help viewers overcome their weariness, agitation, and disgust with their worlds. His students disagree, believing television to be nothing but junk mail; that is why they are more interested in movies.
(The entire section is 495 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 12 Summary
Gladney attends his German lessons twice a week, and Dunlop insists that they sit facing one another for the duration of the lesson. Gladney is supposed to listen to all of the sounds and view all of the contortions of tongue and mouth Dunlop undergoes as he speaks; when Gladney speaks, Dunlop peers into his pupil’s mouth as Gladney attempts to reproduce what he has heard.
The time before and after each lesson is filled with strained silence; the lesson itself is filled with Gladney’s unnatural articulation, which undoubtedly sounds like “a stone or tree struggling to speak.”
Dunlop has taught many other things, including Greek, Latin, and ocean sailing, but he is most passionate about teaching meteorology. When he was at a very low point in his life, he found comfort and purpose in a weather report; in the midst of his inconsolable life, Dunlop felt as though a message was being transmitted directly to him through television forecasts. Since then, Dunlop has studied everything he can find about weather and teaches meteorology classes to anyone who will attend.
When Gladney gets home, he is greeted by Denise’s father (Babette’s ex-husband, Bob Pardee), who wants to take the family to dinner. It is clear that Denise has no respect for her father, as she asks him about his latest job and discovers he is traveling the country trying to collect money for the Nuclear Accident Readiness Foundation, a “just in case” legal defense fund.
Pardee takes the three older children to the Wagon Wheel for dinner. Gladney takes Babette to the Treadwells’ home so she can do her volunteer reading to the old blind man who lives with his older sister.
Gladney and Wilder wait in the car, but Babette returns within five minutes after looking uncertainly around the house and porch. She is concerned because there is no sign of either Treadwell or his sister, although the house is open and there does not appear to be anything missing.
The adjacent houses are vacant and no one else has seen any activity at Treadwell’s house for the past several days, so the Gladneys report the mystery to a state trooper. She records everything they say and tells them a disappearance occurs in America every eleven seconds.
Gladney, Babette, and Wilder join Pardee and the three older children at Dinky Donut. Pardee is an old and dissipated man, and Babette looks at him with “tender...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 13 Summary
There is not much for college students to do in the town of Blacksmith. The town does not have any natural attraction or hangout, so everything the students do tends to be centered on campus. Blacksmith is an old town, full of “looming Victorian homes” that are only growing older, and it regularly arrays all of its “failed possessions” in driveways during tag sales and yard sales.
Babette calls her husband at his office in Centenary Hall to tell him that Heinrich had been down at the river with his camera, watching the authorities drag the river looking for bodies, when the police received word that the Treadwells had been found. They were discovered “alive but shaken” in an abandoned cookie kiosk in the mall located along the interstate.
Treadwell and his older sister had wandered the giant shopping center for the past two days, “lost, confused and frightened.” Finally they sought refuge in the rather unclean kiosk. Treadwell’s sister, growing weaker, had emerged from their place of safety and scavenged food out of the colorful mall trash cans.
The old people were fortunate that the weather was unusually mild for the duration of their ordeal, and no one yet knows exactly why they did not ask anyone for help. Perhaps the Treadwells, both quite old, simply felt “helpless and adrift” among the intimidating people and structures of the overwhelming shopping center.
Because they did not often leave their home, no one knows how the pair even got to the mall. A grandniece may have dropped them off and then forgotten about them, but no one has been able to reach the grandniece for any comment.
The day before the Treadwells were happily discovered, the police consulted with a local psychic who prefers to be called Adele T. She lives in a trailer on the outskirts of town near the woods; the police chief brought her photos of the Treadwells, which she looked at, and articles of their clothing, which she smelled.
She spent the next hour alone, doing exercises, eating rice, and putting herself in a trance. When the police chief returned, Adele T. told him to stop working at the river and to search for them near a crescent-shaped area somewhere within a fifteen-mile radius of the Treadwells’ home.
The police searched a gypsum processing center located ten miles down the river, where they found an airline bag containing two uncut kilos of heroin and a...
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 14 Summary
Gladney is in bed studying German when Denise tells him she discovered a medicine bottle buried in the trash container under the sink; the bottle had Babette’s name on it along with the name of the medication. The substance is Dylar and the directions say it is supposed to be taken once every three days; Denise has not been able to find this drug in her reference book and she is concerned. Gladney is not.
Denise asks Gladney a serious question: why he named his son Heinrich Gerhardt Gladney. At the time, Gladney was just starting the Hitler department and he wanted to do something German as a gesture. He thought the name sounded forceful and strong. Gladney still thinks Heinrich is an impressive name, which he hopes has made his son fearless.
Denise is silent for a bit, prompting Gladney to ask if she thinks he made a miscalculation; she does not answer directly but says there is something awful about everything German, especially Hitler. The Germans cannot be that great or they would not have lost the war. Gladney tells her it “is not a question of greatness” or of good and evil. It is a matter of putting on something that makes one feel “bigger, stronger, safer.” This is what Gladney thinks about most.
Steffie comes into the bedroom unexpectedly wearing the green visor Denise habitually wears, and Gladney is not sure what to think of that. As the three of them are look for unusual words in Gladney’s German-English dictionary, Heinrich runs in and tells them they need to come see the footage of a plane crash.
The girls run for the television, leaving Gladney stunned and immobile. By the time he reaches the television, all he sees is a puff of black smoke. The analyst tries to explain what is happening as the video replays a jet trainer crashing in an air show in New Zealand. That night the family is especially absorbed in their Friday night television ritual because it includes footage of erupting volcanoes, floods, mud slides, and earthquakes.
Siskind is upset that the department head, Alfonse Stompanato, believes a former Elvis bodyguard, Dimitrios Cotsakis, has a greater claim to teach an Elvis course of study than Siskind does. Gladney says he will lend Siskind his support by attending one of Siskind’s lectures.
Stompanato’s manner allows him to “absorb and destroy all opinions in conflict with his.” At lunch, Gladney asks him why people are so...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 15 Summary
Wearing his customary dark glasses and his black scholar’s robe, Gladney unobtrusively enters Murray Jay Siskind’s Elvis lecture. Siskind is talking about the relationship between Elvis and his mother, Gladys, who appears to have known the likely ending of her son’s life if he became a star.
From the back of the room, Gladney speaks about Hitler and his extraordinarily close (shockingly close, some would say) relationship with his mother, Klara. The two professors speak in counterpoint, each man matching the other with pertinent points about their respective “stars” as they walk around the room and through the groups of students gathered for the lecture.
Soon Siskind shares his last bit of information on this topic and sits on the floor in a corner of the room, happily deferring to Gladney. In dramatic fashion, Gladney talks about the crowds who used to come to see Klara’s birthplace. It was just a trickle at first, humble and respectful; soon, however, hordes of people came and began to desecrate the site by taking small things, tokens by which they could respect and remember.
The crowds grew so large that Hitler had to stay inside, and when he did speak to them he used his voice as a “thrilling weapon” to give speeches since labeled “sex murders.” The people were mesmerized by the theatrics, the parades, and his voice; however, this is common behavior for crowds of people who are “eager to be transported.”
What, Gladney asks, made these crowds different, for they were different. He claims that one word set these crowds apart from every other crowd: death.
The people came to pay tribute to the dead, to celebrate death with processions, speeches, songs, and military processions. Every elaborate detail spoke of death, including the black dress uniforms that served as a backdrop to the blood-red symbols of death. People gathered to be part of a crowd, which was much safer for them than being alone. Breaking away from the crowd was to risk dying alone, so the people came together to avoid a solitary death.
From across the room, Siskind still sits; his eyes show a deep gratitude to Gladney for so generously sharing the “power and madness at his disposal.” Gladney has allowed his lofty subject, Hitler, to be associated with “an infinitely lesser figure,” Elvis. It is important for Gladney to maintain the untouchable aura of superiority of his subject...
(The entire section is 457 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 16 Summary
Today, Wilder starts crying at 2:00 p.m. and does not quit. At 6:00, Wilder cries sitting on the kitchen floor as the rest of the family steps around him and hurriedly finishes their meal.
Babette watches the boy as she eats, knowing she has to teach her sitting, walking, and standing class in an hour and a half. She has tried every form of coercion and coaxing, and now she looks at her husband for some help. The old people will be waiting for her.
Wilder’s crying comes in short, steady bursts that grow stronger and weaker at times but never stop. The boy is exhausted and Gladney says they must stop by to see the doctor on the way to Babette’s class; she is not convinced a doctor will see a child just because he is crying.
Nothing about the situation has seemed too urgent, but now that they are going to see a doctor the Gladneys begin to worry and fret in their rush to go. Wilder’s parents review everything he has eaten or done in the last twenty-four hours in case the doctor asks and so their answers will be coordinated. (It is one of Gladney’s biggest fears that a doctor will lose interest in him and “take his dying for granted.”)
Gladney waits in the car while Babette takes Wilder into the doctor’s office. He prefers hospitals, particularly emergency rooms, because all of the ailments and injuries he sees there seem disconnected from his own eventual “nonviolent, small-town death.”
Babette and Wilder emerge from the medical building, and the boy is still crying. They are a “wretched and pathetic pair,” Babette looking defeated and Wilder determinedly crying. Gladney wonders if this is how professional mourners look.
The doctor’s only advice was to give Wilder an aspirin and put him to bed, which is exactly what Denise suggested earlier. Babette does not remember much of her conversation with the physicians and admits she lies to doctors all the time. Gladney does too, but neither explains why they do it.
Wilder now begins keening in the back seat; the sound is haunting and full of anguish. Neither parent knows what to do. Gladney suggests Babette take Wilder to the emergency room, but she just wants Gladney to take her to her class.
After giving her son a long, desperate look, Babette goes to her class. It has been six hours since Wilder started crying, and Gladney sets his son on his lap and really listens to Wilder’s...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 17 Summary
Gladney’s daughter Bee is arriving in a few days. The entire family is in the car when Denise directly confronts Babette about the medication she may or may not be taking, hoping to surprise her mother into admitting something. Gladney admires Denise’s timing but the result is not what the girl had hoped, and her question is never answered.
The Gladney family is the “cradle of the world’s misinformation,” and one random (and generally faulty) fact shared by one person leads to an entire meandering string of ridiculous half-facts. Siskind believes people are “fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts” that threaten their basic happiness and security, and families do their best to seal off the realities of the world. This is how small, misstated facts become full-blown works of fiction.
Gladney insists that ignorance and confusion could not possibly be the foundation of family connectedness, but Siskind points out that the strongest family units are found in the least developed places in the world. Ignorance (or not knowing) is a “weapon of survival.” Families that are not based on absolute reality, that regularly misinterpret the facts, are the strongest.
Gladney meets Eric Massingale, a former microchip sales engineer and now a fellow professor, at the gigantic hardware store in town. Massingale is surprised to see Gladney without his signature dark glasses, but of course Gladney only wears them on campus.
The men shop the aisles filled with everything imaginable and see one another again at the checkout station. Again Massingale remarks on how different Gladney looks without his dark glasses and scholarly gown. In fact, he practically begs Gladney not to take offense when he says that Gladney looks like a “big, harmless, aging, indistinct sort of guy” when he is not on campus.
Gladney is not offended by Massingale’s observation; in fact, it has put him in a rare mood and he decides to go shopping with his family. He wants to buy things (something he usually does not do), and his family is eager to find things he might like to buy.
Gladney traverses all eight floors of the mall and shops with “reckless abandon.” He needs none of the things he buys but enjoys touching and inspecting everything. He looks at himself in every imaginable reflective surface as he grows expansive and generous, telling his kids to go ahead and choose their...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 18 Summary
Gladney drives to Iron City to retrieve his daughter Bee from the airport; instead, he finds his ex-wife Tweedy. First he thinks that something happened to Bee and that Tweedy has come to tell him in person; however, Bee is arriving on a later flight and Tweedy is here to spend a little time with her.
Tweedy finally says Bee is in Indonesia with her father; Gladney reminds her that he is Bee’s father and that Malcolm Hunt is only her stepfather. More importantly, he is concerned about the young girl traveling so far on her own, but Tweedy says Bee is perfectly capable of coping on her own and that this is good practice because she intends to become a travel writer.
Tweedy tells Gladney (she calls him “Tuck”) that she is unhappy because she had depended on him loving her forever. Gladney reminds her she divorced him, took all his money, and married a “well-to-do, well-connected, well-tailored diplomat who secretly runs in and out of sensitive and inaccessible areas.” He tells her that Janet, another of his ex-wives, is now living and working at an ashram in Montana. She was probably the same kind of covert operative Hunt is, but Tweedy finds that hard to believe after meeting her once for half an hour.
Tweedy tells Gladney that when her husband goes undercover, he disappears retroactively; sometimes she wonders if the man she married really exists and hopes Bee can elucidate on his life away from Tweedy. She is nostalgic about her marriage to Gladney and romanticizes the wonders of growing up in a small town.
At the airport, a group of passengers from another flight files into the waiting area; they are obviously shocked and distraught, and some are even wounded. Gladney forces one passenger to look at him and explain what happened.
The plane suddenly lost power in three of its four engines and dramatically dropped twelve thousand feet; panic ensued on the plane. No one assumed any reasonable authority, and the passengers were stunned at this apparent lack of sanity as they prepared for what the pilot called a crash landing. "Crash landing" sounded so much better than "crash;" one word should not matter so much, but everyone clung to that extra word.
Nearly a hundred passengers have gathered around the narrator, although none of them interrupts to dispute or embellish the story. It is almost as if the story did not happen to them and that this passenger was telling...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 19 Summary
Bee, although only a seventh grader, unintentionally makes the family feel uncomfortable during her visit. Her presence in the home seems to focus a “surgical light” on all of the family’s flaws. The Gladneys are rarely intentional about the things they do, avoid making decisions when they can, “take turns being stupid and emotionally unstable,” leave wet towels wherever they drop, and occasionally lose Wilder.
Suddenly everything they do and say seems to need explaining to their guest. Babette is the most flustered by Bee’s presence, a “silent witness” to the sights and sounds of her family.
Bee is a year older than Denise and has the composed, mature demeanor of someone who has traveled and experienced grand things. Even Gladney admires her in a “distant and uneasy way,” as if she were someone else’s child—the “sophisticated and self-reliant” daughter of one of his friends.
When he considers how far he might be willing to go to insulate his family from the world, Gladney thinks that perhaps Siskind is right about ignorance and distortion being the preservation techniques of the modern family.
On Christmas Day, Bee shares her concerns about her mother. Gladney supposes Tweedy’s primary concern is what she told him, that she does not really know who her husband is. Bee assures Gladney that her stepfather is an educated man who spends time in the jungles observing the natives and their rituals because it is fun; it is her mother who does not have anything productive to do with her life. Although Tweedy has many things, including a newly remodeled, state-of-the-art kitchen, she does not have any outlet for fun in her life.
Gladney sees something far older than her years in Bee’s eyes and it frightens him; he changes the subject and tries unsuccessfully to talk to her about being a seventh grader. When they smell burnt toast, Bee says she could have cooked something exotic for the family, and Gladney does not admit that Steffie sometimes just likes the smell of burnt toast.
Two nights later, Gladney hears a ruckus in the hall and goes to investigate. Outside the bathroom door, Denise is scolding Steffie for taking a bath—what she calls “sitting in all that dirty water.” Steffie claims it is her dirty water, but that fact does not diminish Denise’s disgust. Bee appears at the end of the hallway, and suddenly the shame and pettiness of the...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Part 1, Chapter 20 Summary
Gladney reads in the newspaper that Old Man Treadwell’s sister, Gladys, died from a condition the doctor called “lingering dread,” probably the result of being lost at the mall with her brother for four days. Because of his obsession with dying, whenever Gladney reads the obituaries he compares the ages of those who have died to his own age. Today he ponders the life of Attila the Hun, who died young, and wonders if all the great men in history faced their own deaths as bravely as he imagines they did.
Even though she believes their life is good and is quick to say it out loud, Babette confesses to her husband that she has nightmares. The couple discusses their concerns about dying. Babette claims she wants to die first, although she is convinced nothing bad can happen to them because they still have small children living in their house. Gladney claims he wants the same thing and would be inconsolably lonely without Babette. Later, however, he acknowledges to himself the truth: though he would be desperately lonely without his wife, he would rather not die first. Their discussion about death and dying continues long into the night.
After Babette leaves to teach her posture class to adults, Siskind comes over to the Gladneys to continue his research by observing the children. Heinrich and his father discuss the merits of tea (which Heinrich prefers) and coffee (which Gladney prefers), and Heinrich wishes Babette would switch from drinking coffee to drinking tea. Heinrich lectures his father about all the energy he wastes by being so inefficient as he makes a cup of coffee. Gladney does not understand such an argument.
When Gladney takes coffee to Siskind (who is observing the children), they are all shocked to see Babette’s face suddenly appear on the television screen. It is such an unexpected sight that it takes them a few moments to realize she is being interviewed about her posture class held in the basement of the church. There is no effective sound to accompany the video, but her class is obviously being televised by a local cable channel. They are all rather mesmerized by the scene, and Gladney claims Babette’s image is somehow being diffused into them through the television.
Siskind continues taking notes as he observes each child’s reactions. Wilder does not know what to do with what he is seeing and tentatively touches the screen in confusion. When Babette’s face...
(The entire section is 446 words.)
Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 107-116) Summary
It is a snowy January day as Gladney walks home. He sees Heinrich, in his camouflage, sitting on the ledge of the attic looking through binoculars at a train wreck in the distance. Gladney retrieves the fourteen-year-old boy from the ledge, but later the boy hears sirens and returns to his perch with a radio and a highway map.
The derailed tanker was carrying Nyodene Derivative/Nyodene D; Heinrich saw a movie in school about toxic waste and remembers this chemical causes “urgent bumps” in rats. The initial news reports warn about the “feathery plume of smoke” causing skin irritation and sweaty palms, but the reports are now warning about nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. The black cloud of smoke rising from the wreckage is not likely to reach the Gladneys’ house on this windless day, but the interstate is now closed and the sirens continue.
Denise reports that authorities are using snow blowers to cover the wreckage with something that will neutralize the chemical. The girls’ palms are sweating, but no one believes they have actually been harmed. A weather front is blowing in from the northeast, and the danger from the black cloud is growing a bit more likely. Despite hearing the air raid sirens from a neighboring town, Gladney is certain his family is in no imminent danger. Nothing so dramatic ever happens to people like them. Babette is worried but only shares her concern with Gladney.
Now reports call the smoke a “black billowing cloud.” Gladney goes to the roof to see lots of emergency teams working furiously. It is clear that the potential danger here is more than fire or explosion; this “death would penetrate, seep into the genes, show itself in bodies not yet born.”
Gladney is still not worried. Heinrich informs him that the latest reports are calling this an “airborne toxic event.” Despite his son’s foreboding tone as he makes this announcement, Gladney is still unconcerned. Location is everything, he says, and the cloud is over there while they are here.
Heinrich begs his father to react, but Gladney insists that tragic incidents only happen to “people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county.” The family eats early and the girls are certain that is because their parents want to “get it out of the way.”
The air raid sirens go off during the meal, so close that everyone at the table is disrupted. The...
(The entire section is 494 words.)
Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 117-125) Summary
Twenty minutes after the loudspeaker’s warning, the Gladneys are in the car. The radio announcer says all evacuees from the west end of town are to go to the abandoned Boy Scout camp, where Red Cross workers would provide coffee and juice; those leaving the east end of town should report to the Kung Fu Palace restaurant.
The Gladneys join the procession heading for the camp. Behind them, they hear the loudspeaker’s warning: “Abandon all domiciles. Now, now. Toxic event, chemical cloud.”
Snow begins to fall and the Gladneys are silent as they attempt to assimilate what is happening to them. They examine the faces of the people in the vehicles next to them, trying to gauge how frightened they should be. Incoming traffic has been stopped and authorities are in sight; that is a good sign in a crisis.
The snow falls harder, and now the radio announcer tells everyone who is already inside to stay there. When an expert begins to list the medical problems connected with this kind of airborne toxic event, Babette talks with the girls and Gladney lowers the volume so the girls will not hear the potential symptoms, such as concussion, coma, and miscarriage. It begins to seem imperative that the family reach the camp and shut themselves inside until the "all clear" is sounded.
Long lines of people pushing and carrying all sorts of things are making their way through the snow to the camp; one family is completely wrapped in plastic. The migration is impressive and finally causes Gladney to consider the possible seriousness of this situation.
The Gladneys pass a wreck, and Heinrich watches through his binoculars and announces every gory specific from the rear window. Gladney is surprised to hear Heinrich talk about this crisis with some sense of exhilaration, “steeped happily in disaster.” Surely Heinrich does not want to die, but his voice reveals a “craving for terrible things.”
Gladney sees Babette surreptitiously put something in her mouth and swallow it. When he asks her about it, she makes up an implausible story; however, he sees that Denise is interested in their conversation and so he does not pursue it. The radio announces that dogs trained to sniff out Nyodene D are on their way from the remote parts of New Mexico.
As they drive past another accident, Steffie claims she has seen all of this before. Steffie and Denise have both been experiencing the...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 126-135) Summary
At the Boy Scout camp, some families choose to sleep in their cars; others are forced to do so because there is no more room. The Gladneys are in one of the barracks, a dismal place made cheerier by the presence of other refugees and their belongings as well as the helpful Red Cross workers. It feels like a safe place to be.
Gladney walks the room seeking information; he learns there are nine evacuation centers and that the governor is on his way to the site. He is surprised to find Heinrich at the center of a cluster of other people seeking information; the boy, “speaking in his new-found voice,” is sharing his technical knowledge and his “morbid delight” about the impending calamity. The impressed crowd moves closer, and Gladney wonders if this tragedy will provide the impetus for Heinrich to “learn to make his way in this world.”
Heinrich explains that Nyodene D is the byproduct of insecticides; while the insecticides kill insects, the byproducts kill everything else. It stays active in the soil for forty years, and the result is that eventually all sorts of fungi will begin growing in and out of houses. Its effects on humans have yet to be fully determined. Gladney leaves before Heinrich sees him and grows self-conscious.
The Gladneys are camped next to a black Jehovah’s Witness family passing out tracts and predicting even worse calamities to come. Gladney and Babette discuss whether the girls are reacting to the news or really suffering symptoms of the Nyodene D. Babette experiences déjà vu as they talk. Gladney tells her that Heinrich is being funny and charming as he talks knowledgeably about the substance unknown to most of them, and Babette suggests he go and show his support for his son. Gladney turns the conversation to the something she surreptitiously swallowed earlier and she still claims it was only a piece of candy.
The couple is interrupted by the Jehovah’s Witness husband, who wants to talk about all kinds of impending national disasters as signs of God’s judgment. This forces Gladney to think, unwillingly, about his eternal destiny—until his thoughts are interrupted by a woman at the other end of the room outlining all of the dangers for anyone who has been exposed. Babette is worried because Gladney got out of the car to pump gas on their way to the camp and was almost certainly exposed to Nyodene D.
Gladney stands in a long line waiting to talk...
(The entire section is 474 words.)
Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 136-149) Summary
The evacuation worker tells Gladney that they will all know more about the effects of his exposure to Nyodene D in fifteen years; until then, he “definitely has a situation.” Nyodene D has a life of thirty years, so in fifteen years Gladney will have made it halfway. The man says if he were a rat, he would not have liked to be exposed to the toxic chemical; however, since the long-term effects on humans are unclear, he would ignore the computer’s assessment and go on to live a productive, happy life.
Gladney is not comforted; he knows he is the sum total of his data and feels as if he is already dead. He wishes he had his dark glasses and academic robe.
He needs a distraction, so he sits behind Babette as she reads from the tabloids to Treadwell and several others. Babette reads the dramatic story of several people who have discovered their past lives and can confirm that there is, indeed, life after death. The others seem unfazed by the astounding revelation, but Gladney wants to believe them.
Babette continues, reading bizarre and dramatic psychic predictions for the year ahead. Once again the listeners are unmoved by the dramatic forecasts of destruction and disaster. Gladney suspects it is because, sitting here in the midst of a disaster, these outlandish events do not seem so far-fetched.
Gladney goes back to his family. Heinrich is awake and they have a philosophical discussion about time, knowledge, and science before Gladney goes outside for some air. There he sees his friend, Murray Jay Siskind, talking with a carload of prostitutes from Iron City. Siskind was on his way back from New York when the airport bus got diverted to the Boy Scout camp. He heard there were prostitutes and has come to hear their stories.
Gladney explains his brief exposure to Nyodene D and the computer’s dire prediction; death has been planted inside him and the only question is whether he can outlive it. Siskind says this is a condition everyone shares, and the more people learn about death, the more it grows. The dead are closer to everyone now than they have ever been.
Siskind expresses his sincere sorrow about Gladney’s circumstances; Gladney admits he has had a dread and fear of death since he was in his twenties and now he is enmeshed in it. Siskind explains that déjà vu is happening because “death is in the air,” and people are more connected to the supernatural in such...
(The entire section is 469 words.)
Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 150-156) Summary
Gladney feels as if he has slept for only a few moments before he is awakened by noise and commotion in the barracks. Denise is pounding on his torso to wake him; once he is up, she tries to wake Babette, as well. Everyone around them is dressing and packing and a bell is clanging a warning. The wind has changed and everyone must evacuate.
Now both girls are pounding on Babette, but she simply rolls over contentedly and asks for five more minutes. Outside, the “amplified voice” continues to warn that the toxic cloud has changed direction; Wilder eats a cookie and waits. Denise is frustrated at the repetitive voice and at her mother, who is so slow to respond.
Finally the girls get their mother up on all fours and Gladney goes to use the bathroom and brush his teeth. When he returns, Babette is dressed and the family is heading to the exit. A woman at the door is handing out surgical masks; the Gladneys take six of them and leave.
It is rainy and dark, and everything outside is in confusion as vehicles are trying to escape in a panic. The rain is turning to snow, and Gladney does his best to drive quickly to Iron City, where people are arranging food and water for the evacuees.
The Gladneys hear the rotors and look up to see eighteen helicopters lighting the cloud, “immense almost beyond comprehension, beyond legend and rumor, a roiling bloated slug-shaped mass.” Even worse, the cloud seems to be generating its own storm. Gladney suddenly remembers that he is “technically dead” and is shocked; all he can do is try to get his family to safety.
The Gladneys conduct a typically inane conversation on the long drive to Iron City; they arrive at dawn after passing through several checkpoints where they were given instructions for the evacuation centers. Forty other families are with them in an abandoned karate studio on the fourth floor of an old building. The Gladneys, with their air mattresses, food, and coffee, settle into their new home. They are not allowed to leave the building.
By noon, a rumor is circulating that microorganisms that will devour the toxic elements in Nyodene D are being dropped into the center of the toxic cloud. It sounds like a story the tabloids would write. Babette is impressed with this technology but is scared about the future implications of such capabilities. Gladney agrees. Steffie takes every warning seriously and is still wearing her...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 22 Summary
The supermarket in Blacksmith is full of elderly people looking lost and confused, like inmates walking aimlessly through institutional corridors. Gladney pushes Wilder in a cart, and the boy is captivated by the brightly colored items practically screaming at them from the shelves.
The addition of a butcher’s corner and a bakery is exciting for all of them, and the other exciting news is why the market is full of shoppers: heavy snow is on its way. Roads will soon be impassable, so everyone must stockpile their supplies before it is too late. He sees his friend Siskind with a Teflon skillet under his arm, talking to five shoppers and awkwardly taking notes.
Siskind tells Gladney that he is thankful for Gladney’s help in the “Elvis Presley power struggle,” but it turns out his efforts were unnecessary since Cotsakis (Suskind’s rival for the Elvis program) died in the ocean in Malibu. As soon as Siskind heard the news, he immediately came here to grocery store to take notes. Gladney is suddenly and acutely aware of the sights and sounds around him.
Siskind asks about the family; everyone is back in school and Steffie is no longer wearing her protective mask. He then asks Gladney how he is, a confusing question. He diverts the conversation to Cotsakis’ death, although Gladney did not really know him, remarking at how big (physically) the man was and now he is dead.
Gladney and Wilder continue shopping, and Gladney admires the boy’s ability to find pleasure in fleeting things and then immediately forget them. Gladney envies his son that gift. Although houses always begin to show signs of neglect, the supermarket, “well-stocked, musical, and bright,” only gets even better.
Gladney takes Babette to her posture class tonight and they both note that the sunset has “become unbearably beautiful.” They used to last five minutes; now they last for an hour. The only thing they know of that might account for this phenomenon is the Nyodene Derivative cloud. Vehicles routinely stop to watch the spectacular sunsets, as if the overpass were a scenic lookout.
After class, Babette announces that she has been asked to teach another class: “Eating and Drinking: Basic Parameters.” Gladney says eating and drinking seem too simplistic and basic to require a class, but Babette reminds him that the recommendations about living and food are constantly changing and that adults...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 23 Summary
Gladney feels an urgency to learn German, so he asks his German teacher to add an extra half hour to each lesson. Gladney does well with the vocabulary and grammar rules, and if he were given a written test, he would score well. He still struggles with pronunciation, however; Dunlop does not seem to mind and ceaselessly enunciates words for (and emits motes of spit on) his pupil. Now they meet three days a week, and Dunlop seems to have lost some of his reticence.
Men in Mylex suits still patrol the town. Although the citizens of Blacksmith welcome the dogs, the men in suits remind them of their trouble and fear. At dinner, Denise wonders why the men do not dress in regular clothes; Babette assures her that they only wear them as part of their job and the dogs have only sniffed out “a few traces of toxic material on the edge of town.” Heinrich, as usual, disagrees. He claims that if the actual findings were released, panic, violence, and lawsuits would ensue.
Babette does not believe officials have any reason to lie about their findings, but Heinrich tells her there are investigations being conducted all over the country. Babette agrees, saying reports are released every day about toxic soil, radioactive water, and poisoned air. These things happen so often, in fact, that they cannot possibly be all that serious. Heinrich tells her to forget about the toxic spills; the quicker these events are forgotten, the sooner everyone will start worrying about the real problem: the radiation that surrounds everyone every day.
Radiation is emitted from televisions, microwaves, power lines, and radar in speed-traps. For years the people have been told that none of these things is dangerous, but Heinrich claims they are. In fact, he says, people are more likely to die from toxins emitted from magnetic and electrical fields in their own homes than they are from any dramatic spill, leakage, or fallout. These emissions cause headaches and fatigue, but the worst effects include strange and violent behavior and nervous disorders. He finishes his speech by claiming that “deformed babies” are due to television and radio.
The girls look at Heinrich with admiration; Gladney wants to argue with him. He wants to know why he should believe the scientific data Heinrich is citing but not the scientific conclusion that the townspeople are safe from Nyodene D contamination.
Given his condition, however,...
(The entire section is 499 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 24 Summary
The next night Gladney inadvertently discovers the Dylar; it is in a plastic bottle taped to the underside of the bathroom radiator cover. He immediately gets Denise and they carefully examine the evidence. They leave the bottle intact and go to Denise’s room to talk privately.
Denise says that if confronted by the evidence, Babette will simply claim forgetfulness; Gladney wants to find out what Dylar is. At Christmastime, Denise went to three drugstores and tried to do that. None of them had ever heard of Dylar and found nothing about it when they looked it up in their lists.
Gladney will call Babette’s doctor at home, where he cannot hide behind answering services, receptionists, or nurses; Denise approves and hopes Gladney will be able to trick the doctor into telling them what they want to know.
Babette is in her bedroom, so Gladney sneaks quietly to the kitchen (and the only telephone) and dials the doctor’s number. Doctor Hookstratten is old and experienced enough not to be tricked by anything other than the truth, so Gladney introduces himself and explains he wants to discuss the medication he prescribed for Babette’s memory lapses.
Hookstratten is annoyed at being bothered about mere memory lapses and derisively remembers Babette coming to him with a crying child. Gladney insists that his wife’s prolonged memory lapses must be due to the medication he prescribed her, but the doctor has never heard of Dylar and certainly never prescribed it to Babette or anyone else.
Gladney then calls his own doctor, who thinks Dylar is one of the islands in the Persian Gulf. Upstairs, Gladney tells Denise not to worry; tomorrow he will take a tablet to the chemistry department and have it analyzed.
Heinrich is in his closet doorway doing chin-ups on a bar he got from Mercator, a nineteen-year-old senior in high school. Heinrich is trying to compensate for other flaws (such as a receding hairline) by building up his body. Mercator is training to break the world’s record for sitting amid a cage of poisonous snakes. For practice, he goes to a pet store three times a week and feeds the exotic (and venomous) snakes.
Gladney and Heinrich both confess that when they see people pursuing such danger, they hope something will happen to them. Those thrill seekers deserve whatever they get while the rest of the world does its best to avoid danger. It is a rare moment of...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 25 Summary
Gladney examines the small, white Dylar tablet before giving it to Winnie Richards, a young, brilliant research neurochemist. Richards examines the tablet for several minutes before licking it and shrugging, saying it does not have much taste. She tells Gladney to check back with her in 48 hours, but he cannot find her anywhere on campus for the entire rest of the week.
Denise is careful not to ask Gladney anything about the Dylar and does not even give him a look that might convey any meaning; however, every look Babette gives now seems to have some kind of meaning. In the middle of conversations, she turns her attention to other things and appears to be in serious contemplation of them. These private reveries estrange her from her family, and Gladney talks to her about them one day after the children leave for school.
He tells Babette she is somehow different, looking at things and reacting to things differently than she used to; when she does not say anything meaningful in response, Gladney tells her he found the Dylar. As Denise predicted, Babette claims she does not remember taping anything to the radiator cover and avoids any further conversation by inviting Gladney to the bedroom.
Gladney finally sees Richards trying to walk across campus unnoticed and follows her. He has to trot to keep up with the tall, awkward young woman, his robe flying behind him. He finally catches her in the hallway of the science building but is too winded to speak. When he has sufficiently recovered, he asks Richards if she has been avoiding him as she has not answered his notes or phone messages. She claims she has not been hiding from anyone in particular, although the twentieth century is a time when “people go into hiding even when no one is looking for them.”
She tells him that Dylar is a “drug delivery system” that precisely releases the drug contained inside it at “specified rates for extended periods.” This eliminates the risk of inconsistent dosage as well as any uncomfortable side effects of improper dosage.
All she knows about the chemical inside the pill is that it is a psychopharmaceutical of some kind, probably “designed to interact with a distant part of the human cortex.” The trillions of neurons in the brain each have ten thousand tiny dendrites, and the complex communication system between them all is awe inspiring to Richards. It makes her proud to be an American because...
(The entire section is 458 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 26 Summary
That night Gladney quietly forces Babette to talk about the Dylar, explaining what he knows about the drug. Denise is worried too and will be much more confrontational than Gladney is. After five minutes of silence, Babette quietly asks to tell the story in her own way. Gladney says they have all night.
About a year and a half ago, Babette began to experience an unnamed condition and assumed it was a phase that would pass. Once she realized it was not going away on its own, she tried to break it down into manageable segments and attempted to cure those—all while trying to hide her research from the curious and persistent Denise. Her studying yielded nothing helpful and her condition did not improve; however, one day she was reading to Treadwell and saw an advertisement recruiting “volunteers for secret research” on her condition.
Babette was interviewed by a small firm doing psychobiology research. After exhaustive screening, she was one of three finalists selected to be a test subject for Dylar. She was informed of the risks and signed many releases, but in the end she was not allowed to take the drug. Instead she made a private arrangement with a man she calls Mr. Gray: she gave him her body and he gave her Dylar.
Gladney dispassionately asks for details, but Babette summarizes the months of meeting in a hotel room as a transaction in which she was “operating outside” herself to gain something she desperately needed. She refuses to tell her husband any more details about the rendezvous.
No animals have her condition, so it was imperative that Dylar be tested on a human. Babette breaks down and finally confesses her condition: she is obsessed with the fear of dying. Gladney tries to convince her that her fear is normal by telling her he has had the same fear for half his life. They share their almost-paralyzing fears, which are nearly identical. Dylar was supposed to send relief (tranquilizers) to the “fear-of-death part of the brain”; however, it does not work. She has taken 55 of the 60 pills Gray gave her, but she is more discouraged than ever.
Gray told Babette her memory lapses are a symptom of her fears, not the drug; even though she forgets many other things, she cannot forget her fear of death. He sent her an impersonal message on tape saying he was sorry but she was the wrong subject after all. “It was too random. He was too eager,” and she was a mistake....
(The entire section is 488 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 27 Summary
Gladney goes for his second medical checkup since the airborne toxic event and for the second time is pronounced healthy; evidently the “death is too deep to be glimpsed.” On his drive home, he is stopped because the street is closed for a disaster simulation; one of the workers explains that since Gladney is in the exposure path, he is now dead. Nearly two dozen volunteer victims are in various poses of distress, and Gladney is shocked to see Steffie among them. Steffie is a model victim—too good, in Gladney’s mind, for he can hardly bear to look at her. She wants Gladney to leave before she gets in trouble for talking to him. Steffie has always been devout in her victimhood.
A man’s voice is booming from inside the supermarket, welcoming everyone to this advanced disaster drill; he compares unplanned disasters to carrying an umbrella every day for weeks but leaving it home on the day it pours. This drill should help disaster workers stay prepared for the next inevitability.
The voice explains that today’s simulation is not for any particular leak or spillage; he reminds them that if a real incident occurs there will be no help. This is only a simulation. The more they practice something, “the less likely it is to actually happen.”
The first blasts of the sirens begin just as Gladney reaches his house. Heinrich and an older boy are on the porch; Heinrich has a clipboard and says he is a street captain. After Heinrich introduces his friend as Orest Mercator, Gladney asks Mercator why he is so willing to risk his life for a few lines in a book, Mercator says the deadly snakes are the best at what they do and he wants to be the best at what he does. He will have to sit for sixty-eight days to break the record and does not believe he will get bitten. Gladney is just as certain he will be bitten and passionately claims that the snakes will not care that he is young and strong and dismissive of death. Mercator says if they bite, he will die quickly, but Gladney does not understand Mercator’s rush to die.
Babette is with Wilder; both she and Gladney feel better when they are around him. Gladney asks Babette for the bottle of Dylar, but she insists she did not move it. He picks Denise up from school and explains that Babette takes Dylar to improve her memory; Denise does not believe him. He knows Denise took the bottle as a hostage; Gladney assures her that Babette is no longer...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 28 Summary
Steffie, one of the many volunteer victims who never got help in the disaster simulation, finally returns home. She receives a letter from her mother; she wants Steffie to go visit her in Mexico City for Easter. Gladney explains that he will drop her off at the airport and her mother will meet her at the other end; the idea of going to a foreign country, flying thirty thousand feet above the ground at supersonic speed, and doing it all alone is sobering for the nine-year-old.
After a few moments of thought, Steffie claims she promised to serve as a volunteer victim again just before Easter, so she cannot go. Gladney says he will write her an excuse. Dana Breedlove, Steffie’s mother, was Gladney’s first and fourth wife; Stephanie Rose (Steffie) was conceived before the marriage fell apart for the second time. Breedlove is secretive about her work, but Gladney knows she reviews fiction for the CIA, a task which leaves her feeling tired and irritable.
Gladney wonders why he is inexplicably attracted to women whose lives are connected to intelligence. Breedlove is a part-time spy; Tweedy comes from a spying and counterspying family and is married to a “high-level jungle operative”; and Janet (Heinrich’s mother) was involved in clandestine currency research before she retired to the ashram. His attraction to Babette was probably relief, at least in part—until her fears propelled her into a “frenzy of clandestine research and erotic deception.”
Gladney has lunch with Siskind and some other colleagues; two of them conduct a rambling dialogue which leads them to the subject of death. Both men used to take great pleasure in imagining their own deaths, and one of them still does. When he is upset or feeling self-pity, he imagines everyone gathered around his coffin, regretting they did not appreciate him more when he was alive.
Gladney does not want to listen to this, as he has his “own dying to dwell upon,” but he does not escape before another colleague insists the only true power in life comes from having a good internist who can ensure that one’s vital internal organs are working properly. Gladney and Siskind finally do escape, and Gladney asks how Siskind’s car crash seminar is progressing.
His students have watched hours of film in which cars crash into other cars, helicopters, motorcycles, trucks, and buses; his students believe these crashes are symbolic of...
(The entire section is 494 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 29 Summary
Babette and Gladney are shopping at the supermarket. They see a family shopping in sign language and Gladney keeps seeing brightly colored lights. The couple now routinely asks one another how each of them are doing. Gladney says he feels good and his doctor has confirmed that nothing is wrong with him. When he wants to go to another aisle for an item, Babette will not let him go without her; she does not want to be left alone, and he should know that.
Gladney is certain the two of them will make it through this crisis and perhaps be even stronger than ever. They are each “determined to be well.” Babette is a positive, affirming person who gets things accomplished; nevertheless, they walk each aisle together. She buys three tabloid magazines for her next reading session with Old Man Treadwell as they wait in line together; then they walk together to the car, load the groceries together, and sit very close to one another on the drive home.
Gladney tells Babette that his doctor says he is in good health except for his eyes. Doctor Chakravarty thinks Gladney should see an eye doctor about the colored spots he keeps seeing; Babette thinks he should stop wearing his dark glasses. Gladney tries to explain that he cannot teach his Hitler classes without him; he has built his program and his persona with the glasses, and he cannot risk tampering with this formula for success.
Gladney continues to attend his German lessons and practices phrases he can use to welcome delegates to the upcoming Hitler conference in several weeks. Howard Dunlop has been piling his furniture, debris, and belongings against the windows; now the windows are completely blocked. Gladney suspects he might be the only person Dunlop ever sees and wonders if Dunlop needs him more than he needs Dunlop. It is a “disconcerting and terrible thought.”
On a table near the door, Gladney sees a heavy, ominous-looking book with a German title. When he asks about it, Dunlop eerily whispers that it is The Egyptian Book of the Dead, a best-seller in Germany.
At home, Gladney is on a rampage to throw things away. He cleans out his closet and sorts boxes of things in the basement and the attic, throwing away correspondence, books, clothing, student papers, broken things, and things without lids. That night a television reporter shows film of officials carrying a dead body out of a house; as many as thirty bodies...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 30 Summary
In the dark that night, Gladney cannot sleep because he is filled with panic, the “old defenseless feeling.” Gladney feels small and weak, alone and bound for death. He wakes up Babette (not an easy feat) and tells her he has to know the true identity of Mr. Gray, the man with whom she slept and did research. He is not angry and claims to have a sense of perspective about this, but he wants to try Dylar to see if it will relieve him of his horrific fears. Babette refuses to tell him, but he begs her to arrange a meeting so he can plead his case to the researcher. Still she refuses.
In his office that afternoon, he watches the science building until he sees Winnie Richards slinking her secretive way across campus; then he rushes off after her in a desperate attempt to catch her. He is winded but determined; he loses sight of her for a short time and then finds her again, running desperately after her before he loses her again. When he gets to the top of a hill, he is stunned to find that she is here to watch the glorious sunset, “going down like a ship in a burning sea.”
Richards sees Gladney and says she did not know he came here to watch the sunsets, too. He tells her he usually watches from the overpass. This particular sunset is not at as spectacular as one he saw last week; he hopes this is not a sign that the amazing spectacles are beginning to dissipate. They stand in silence for a few moments until Gladney tells Richards the pill he had her test is designed to produce “fear-of-death inhibitors.” It is a foreign thought to her, since everyone dies eventually.
Gladney wonders if she has heard rumors of any research groups studying the fear of death; she has not, but the desperation in his voice causes her to take her eyes off the sunset and look at him. Finally she says it seems to her that worrying about death is a mistake, since it is death which gives a “precious texture to life.” Without the knowledge of a final ending, nothing in this life would contain beauty or meaning.
She believes fear is positive because it causes one’s awareness to move to a heightened level. Gladney wonders if he is supposed to climb a ninety-story building or sit in a cage of poisonous snakes to help him control his fear; Richards says there is obviously no medicine which will eliminate the fear and strangeness of death, so he should forget about the Dylar.
Gladney knows she is right....
(The entire section is 494 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 31 Summary
No one wants to cook that night, so the Gladneys go to a restaurant specializing in chicken parts and brownies and then eat in their car. Eating is something they need to do, but they take no joy in it tonight, and they certainly do not need to make eye contact or conversation. All eating stops as the family conducts another inane, disjointed, and factually flawed discussion, this time about space.
The conversation eventually changes to weather, and Babette claims Russian psychics are to blame for the “crazy weather.” There has been no crazy weather, but this week a policeman saw a body tossed from a UFO and later the body of an unidentified man was discovered. The cause of death was multiple fractures and heart failure, possibly due to a “ghastly shock.” Under hypnosis, the officer (a former Vietnam veteran) maintains he saw a body plummet from a UFO to the ground and sensed a message was being transferred to his brain. The authorities will pursue this story to uncover the message. UFOs have been sighted all over the area.
The Gladneys continue to sit in their car and inhale their food, silent except for the noises associated with eating. Once their hunger is sated, they are able to look beyond themselves and see those outside the vehicle. People are leaving the restaurant with cartons of food, but soon those in the backseat grow restless and want to be home, not here. Suddenly they are not content and want to be immediately transported back to their familiar and comfortable rooms rather than sit in the back seat of a cramped automobile.
Gladney recognizes the signs of impatience and starts the car, hoping to make it home before any trouble comes from the back seat. He and Babette wait for the usual fighting to begin, followed by attacks against the adults. Babette dreads this impending conflict and talks again about UFOs, and some of the strange conversation begins to make sense to Gladney.
That night he and Babette drink hot chocolate at the kitchen table which is covered by coupons, receipts, and various pieces of mail, including a postcard from Mary Alice, Gladney’s oldest daughter. Mary Alice is Steffie’s sister (she is the product of his first marriage to Dana Breedlove, Steffie is the product of the couple’s second marriage); she is ten years older (nineteen) and has already been married twice. She lives in Hawaii and works with whales.
After a time, Babette asks...
(The entire section is 484 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 32 Summary
Gladney and Siskind walk companionably across campus. Gladney’s hands are folded monkishly under his robe and across his abdomen. They discuss Gladney’s progress in learning German. Howard Dunlop is teaching Gladney some opening remarks for the convention, but there is something about the man which makes Gladney uneasy. Siskind lists several aspects of the man which make him uneasy, and Gladney agrees.
Dunlop’s skin is too soft, he has dried saliva in the corners of his mouth, looks at people over their shoulders, and walks rigidly even though he shuffles when he walks; but there is something even worse. Gladney is certain Siskind will be able to identify what has been eluding Gladney, but Siskind just walks and nods. He nods all the way to their destination, but he never offers Gladney the answer he seeks. Four days later, Siskind calls Gladney at one o’clock in the morning and whispers this observation: Dunlop looks like a man who “finds dead bodies erotic.”
Gladney has one final German lesson. The windows in Dunlop’s room are still covered, and the things piled in front of them seem to Gladney to be encroaching on the rest of the room. Dunlop closes his eyes and recites useful traveling phrases, as usual, but Gladney has to force himself to continue sitting there; Siskind’s assessment is exactly what Gladney had felt, but now that it has been iterated his feelings have changed. What had seemed “strange and half creepy” now feels like a disease. Despite that, Gladney will miss the lessons just as he misses the German shepherds which were sent to Blacksmith to sniff out toxic chemicals but have just left.
Tonight the insane asylum burns down, and Gladney and Heinrich drive closer to watch the conflagration. Other father-son pairs are there to observe, as well, as if fire somehow draws men closer. The building crumbles, bit by bit, in the heat and the noise. As firefighters work to contain the blaze, Heinrich says he finds this just as fascinating as looking at a fire in the fireplace. Siskind’s rooming house is nearby, and Siskind silently joins the Gladneys and solemnly shakes their hands. After watching for a bit, he silently shakes their hands again and then disappears.
The mood of the spectators changes when something acrid, perhaps insulation, begins to burn. The odor causes eyes to burn, and soon the betrayed onlookers hurry back to their cars. At home, Gladney...
(The entire section is 479 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 33 Summary
Gladney wakes unexpectedly to find Wilder silently staring at him. When the boy turns and leaves the room, Gladney follows him and discovers a white-haired man sitting in a wicker chair in the back yard. He wonders what he is seeing until he realizes Wilder is no longer standing next to him; he finds his son sleeping soundly in his own bed. The man is still outside, unmoving, and Gladney is certain Death has come for him in the form of this man.
He tries to do things to take his mind off his fear, but finally he decides the best way to keep death from entering his house is to go outside to meet him. Gladney looks in on his children before he goes outside, wondering if they will see his death as yet another divorce in their lives. Finally he goes to see Babette, kissing her on the forehead before leaving to meet his fate.
Clutching his tattered copy of Mein Kampf, Gladney goes outside. The man stands, and in a moment Gladney realizes the man is his father-in-law, Vernon Dickey. He is a haggard, worn man with a rasping cough; he drove fourteen hours to get here and did not want to wake the family with his unexpected arrival. He has always been an embarrassment to Babette because women are drawn to the sexuality he exudes and enjoys.
Babette appears in her sweat suit, ready to go run the stadium stairs; she is unpleasantly dumbstruck when she sees her father, but as the morning progresses she transforms into the daughter who used to do everything with her beloved father. Heinrich gives up his room, but Dickey does not seem to sleep. No matter how little the Gladneys sleep, it seems as if Dickey is determined to sleep even less. He is a ubiquitous presence in the house, and every movement he makes stirs a spectrum of emotions in Babette.
One night Gladney goes to turn off her television after Denise has fallen asleep and takes advantage of the opportunity to search for the Dylar bottle. She wakes and tells him she will not give him the Dylar unless he tells her what it is. Leaving out the most salacious and revelatory parts of the explanation, he tells her what he knows about the drug’s purpose and effects. Denise threw the pills away days ago, but Gladney still loves her.
Dickey takes Gladney to his beat-up car and makes him take the loaded gun he has hidden under the seat, assuming correctly that Gladney has no weapon to defend himself or his family. It is German-made, but...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 34 Summary
Gladney and Siskind walk downtown, and Siskind is enamored of the orderliness of diagonal parking, something quite peaceful compared to the aggressive front-to-back parking rampant in the cities. Blacksmith’s main street buildings are old and quiet, two-story and ordinary like most pre-war buildings. They make Gladney think of Albert Speer’s Law of Ruins. Speer wanted every structure he built to “decay gloriously, impressively, like Roman ruins.” In this way, the ruin is built into the creation. Siskind is unimpressed with everyone’s nostalgia but his own.
The weather has turned humid, and Gladney finds himself in the house alone one day. He looks into the trash compactor, certain that the bag must have been emptied sometime in the ten days since Denise dumped the bottle of Dylar inside, but he is still compelled to search. While he finds many disgusting and atypical things, he does not find the bottle of pills he thinks he needs. Gladney decides that Denise, Babette, and Richards are all correct when they tell him he will find no relief in the pills; he will face whatever he must “without chemical assistance.”
Gladney decides to have another physical exam; the doctor is happy to see that Gladney is taking his job as a patient seriously. People forget that they are “all permanent patients” and should act as such, especially since they all expect their doctors to be professionals at all times. Today Doctor Chakravarty is not happy with Gladney’s computer printout, as it shows that Gladney has a high level of potassium. His number was quite average the last time he was here, but there are false elevations and true elevations; it is much too complicated for Gladney to comprehend.
Gladney is worried at what the doctor tells him is a “sky-high” elevation, as indicated by a “bracketed number with computerized stars.” The high number might mean nothing or it might mean something quite serious. Gladney asks if this spike in potassium could possibly be the initial signs of some condition which might be caused by involuntary exposure to some kind of spillage or cloud. The doctor asks if Gladney was exposed and Gladney denies it; so the doctor says it is just a hypothetical question. The doctor sends him to an advanced medical facility in Glassboro to have more extensive tests done. When those results are returned, Doctor Chakravarty will minutely examine the results.
At home later,...
(The entire section is 465 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 35 Summary
Babette is obsessed with talk radio; she also wears her sweat suit everywhere and spends as much time as she can with Wilder. She is no longer the “healthy, outgoing” woman she used to be. Her fear of death has not dissipated, and it is fine with her that Wilder is talking even less now than he used to you (she says there are enough words already). Denise is worried about her mother, even refusing to let Babette leave the house without every exposed patch of skin being slathered in sunscreen. Babette insists that the worst of the sun’s rays are direct; since she is a runner, she is not likely to receive many direct hits from the sun. Denise is dumbstruck at Babette’s thinking, but Babette believes everything is connected to profit: the sunscreen, the marketing, the fear, and the disease.
Gladney takes Heinrich and his snake-sitting friend Mercator out for dinner; he wants to hear more about Mercator’s thinking. Mercator is still training for his upcoming record-breaking attempt and is not nervous. The only thing he worries about is not being able to do what he has trained for; he cannot be the best without the opportunity to prove himself.
What Gladney really wants to know is whether Mercator has any fear of dying. Mercator will be one of millions of others who have died; all he wants is a chance to make a name for himself before he does. Since the rest of the world is trying to avoid death, Gladney wants to know what motivates him to intentionally risk dying. Mercator has no real answer.
At home, Gladney continues to nag Babette to tell him about the anonymous Mr. Gray; she understands he is suffering both from typical male jealousy and his “ancient fear” of death but refuses to help him find the man or the medication.
Steffie is packing for her trip to visit her mother. Denise and Wilder are with her when Gladney joins them. Denise has been giving her sister “confidential advice on visits to distant parents.” Steffie’s flight will only make two stops between Iron City and Mexico and she will not have to change planes, so it is a quite manageable trip.
Steffie is afraid she will not recognize her mother (she saw her last year); if her mother will not send her back, she wonders if Gladney will come kidnap her and bring her home. Gladney reassures her that he will come.
The next day, men in Mylex with measuring instruments patrol the streets during a...
(The entire section is 483 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 36 Summary
Occasionally, Gladney thinks about the gun his father-in-law gave him, now hidden in the bedroom. It is warmer now, and when he walks down the street he can hear everything the women inside are saying as they talk on the telephone. One night Gladney gets a collect call from Mother Devi (Heinrich’s mother, Janet); she wants to know if Heinrich will be joining her at the ashram this summer. Gladney will let his son go if he wishes, but he does not want Heinrich to be sucked into the philosophy she has espoused. Later Gladney wonders if Janet’s swami has the answers to Heinrich’s questions, the questions Gladney cannot answer.
Delegates for the Hitler conference are arriving. The ninety participants will spend three days attending lectures, panel discussions, and movies; they will walk the campus exchanging Hitler gossip and spreading Hitler rumors. Though the delegates are diverse, they look astoundingly similar. Gladney’s five-minute opening speech is five minutes of prepared and disjointed remarks, heavily laden with words which are essentially the same in both languages: wolf, baseball, brother, mother, and beer.
Gladney spends the rest of the conference trying to avoid the delegates. He has nothing to add to their guttural sounds and Hitler jokes, so he hides in his office. Every time he thinks of the gun hidden at home, a shiver runs through him, “the profound stir of secret-keeping.” A handgun is a cunning device, and it makes him wonder about those who owned it before him.
That evening Gladney collects an excited and happy Steffie from the airport; the next day he drives to Glassboro to take the tests his doctor recommended, equipped with all the requisite body fluid samples. He answers questions on a computer, is scanned, probed, and tested; he reminds himself the people here are trying to help him. Finally he is dressed and sitting across the desk from a mumbling doctor. Gladney had assumed his results would be available in a few days, but they are ready now. He is not sure he is ready and jokes that the testing is enough to make someone ill.
The doctor follows the usual procedure: he asks Gladney questions and will then send Gladney home with a sealed envelope containing his results. Everything seems typical until the doctor asks if Gladney has ever been exposed to toxic material in the air or water and if he has ever heard of a substance called Nyodene...
(The entire section is 496 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 37 Summary
At noon, Gladney and Siskind begin walking and talking about death. Gladney says he is “just going through the motions” of living but is “technically dead.” An insecticide byproduct has created in him a nebulous mass, and it is a “shallow, unfulfilling” thing from which to die. Gladney thinks this death is unfair and premature. Despite Siskind’s urging him to loftier thoughts, Gladney’s only true regret is death itself. There is only one consideration: he wants to live.
Siskind asks for clarification, and Gladney assures him that he would be just as reluctant to die if he had lived a long, accomplished life. Siskind tells Gladney he is in the unique position to be able to speak of death with a certain “prestige and authority.” People will seek him out as his death grows imminent and Gladney must therefore not slip into self-pity or despair. People want their dying friends to be noble and brave.
Siskind asks Gladney questions, and he learns that Gladney believes love is stronger than death, that everyone fears death to some degree, that knowledge of certain death makes life more anxiety-filled than satisfying, and knowing the exact time and place of death would make it even more terrifying.
Gladney asks Siskind how he can “get around” death.” Gladney does not trust technology, and dismisses Siskind’s suggestion that studying the afterlife in its various forms might bring some relief and even comfort. What Gladney must surely do is “survive an assassination attempt,” which means surviving something which kills other, lesser men. Siskind says “helpless and fearful people are drawn to magical figures,” and somehow Hitler seemed larger than death. Gladney has managed to use Hitler both to diminish his fear of death and to “grow in significance and strength.” Siskind admires Gladney’s boldness, but it is clear Gladney’s best efforts have failed. Gladney has not escaped death despite his efforts to both stand out and hide.
At the supermarket, Siskind explains that Gladney is no good at repressing. Gladney likes being with Wilder because Wilder is unaware that he will one day die and he envies that unawareness. As they leave the store, Siskind explains that for centuries society has always killed others to “cure themselves of death.” Becoming a killer is a way of controlling death; the more people one kills, the more one controls his own death. Plotting and...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 38 Summary
That night Gladney tells Babette that Siskind thinks the problem is that people who fear death are no good at suppressing their fears. Babette is confused, as they have been told for years that repression causes “tension, anxiety, unhappiness; a hundred diseases and conditions.” People are supposed to talk about their fears and “get in touch with their emotions.” Siskind disagrees, believing repression is something that differentiates people from animals. It may be crazy, but Gladney says it is the only way to survive.
The next day, Gladney begins to carry his gun with him to school. It is always with him, in his jacket or in his desk drawer, and it gives him a sense of power. This is something he can control, even if it is in secret. He begins to think that people who come into his office unarmed are foolish. One afternoon he takes the gun from his drawer and examines it; three bullets remain in the chamber, and he wonders how his father-in-law, Vernon Dickey, used the other bullets. He ponders four Dylar tablets and three bullets.
Later he asks Heinrich about Mercator’s snake-sitting feat. No one would let him officially sit for months with poisonous snakes, so Mercator had to “go underground.” Mercator found a notary public in Watertown who would certify his feat, but the best he could do was a hotel room where a man promised to bring twenty-seven venomous snakes but showed up with three. Mercator got bitten after just three minutes; anticlimactically, he discovered that the snakes were not poisonous. Rather than be thankful just to be alive, Mercator is now in hiding.
Gladney walks back to his office; it is late and the campus is empty, but he feels as if someone is walking parallel to him, in and out of the shadow. He thinks perhaps the gun is making him unusually jumpy. Gladney finally turns around to face his foe from behind a tree, gun ready. When he sees it is Winnie Richards, Gladney puts the gun back in his pocket.
She tells him that she has read about an organization near Iron City, led by Willie Mink, a genius with questionable ethics, which was doing research on things like Dylar. She tells him many details about a woman wearing a ski mask meeting Mink for “unsupervised human experimentation”; she does not know she is describing Babette. Mink has been ousted from the organization and is living in the motel in Germantown where he met Babette.
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 39 Summary
Gladney plans to find Willie Mink (Mr. Gray), shoot him three times, create a suicide scene, take the Dylar, drive back to Blacksmith, hide the car, and walk home. He looks in the motel window, the latent violence “a smashing intensity” inside him.
Gladney enters the motel room and faces a man dressed in a Hawaiian-print shirt and Budweiser shorts. The man does not look away from the television screen as he asks whether Gladney is “heartsick or soulsick.” Eventually he looks at Gladney and says he must be here for Dylar, the same thing for which others have come. It soon becomes apparent to Gladney that this former genius has become nothing but a pill-taking drug dealer who has lost touch with most of reality.
Mink eats the white pills like candy and Gladney begins to feel sorry that Babette resorted to this in order to conquer her fear of death. Mink asks Gladney how many pills he wants to buy and mentions that he used to have sex in this room with a woman in a ski mask. Gladney is “nearer to death, nearer to second sight,” and he reviews his plan to kill this pathetic man.
Gladney remembers Babette’s comments about Dylar’s side effects and gets Mink to act out whatever words he speaks. Gladney’s could shoot but is distracted by the white noise emanating from the television. His consciousness begins to grow and he understands everything around him now; Mink keeps talking and Gladney is ready to kill him immediately. He does not want to compromise his “elegant plan.” Gladney reveals exactly who he is and why he is here, and the crazed man huddles in a corner of the bathroom behind the toilet.
As the noise in the room intensifies in Gladney’s mind, he shoots. He fires a second shot, just because, and imagines he is “storing up life-credit” by killing Mink. He carefully wipes his fingerprints off the gun and places it in Mink’s lifeless hand. Mink rallies enough to shoot Gladney in the wrist. The pain recalls Gladney to reality and he now sees Mink with compassion and remorse. After bandaging his wrist, Gladney drags Mink out to the borrowed car, stops to breathe life back into the dying man, convinces Mink that he shot himself, and drives them both to the hospital. Mink will live.
The nurse (a nun) tosses the gun in a drawer with dozens of other weapons. Gladney speaks rudimentary German with her. When he asks about her view of heaven, the nurse speaks...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 40 Summary
Wilder gets on his tricycle and rides around the block until he reaches the dead-end street, where he walks his tricycle around the guard rail. His ride continues along a walkway which winds past several overgrown lots until it reaches a set of twenty concrete stairs. The rest of the astonishing account is told by two older women who were watching from the second-story back porch of one of the tall houses nestled in the trees.
They see the boy walk his tricycle carefully down the stairs until he reaches the bottom; there he remounts and rides across the street and onto the grassy area bordering the expressway. The concerned women begin to call Wilder, rather tentatively, until they see he plans to pedal diagonally down the slope and then cross the expressway. Now the women call frantically, but Wilder either ignores them or does not hear them next to the rushing traffic. All they can do is watch in alarm and wish the scene could somehow be rewound.
The drivers are confused by the presence of a little boy wheeling across the expressway on his tricycle and do their best to avoid hitting him. Wilder is unwavering in his desire to reach the median, ignoring the screeching tires and blaring horns as he walks his tricycle across the grass and prepares to cross the next three lanes of traffic. Cars dodge and swerve to miss the furiously pedaling boy, and Wilder reaches the other side.
For a moment he is fine but then appears to lose his balance and falls down the embankment. The ladies see him sitting, stunned, in the mud next to his overturned tricycle. Wilder begins to cry. A quick-thinking driver rescues the boy.
Gladney, Babette, and Wilder go often to the overpass to watch the sunset. It is a natural drama, and neither clouds nor rain deter the spectacular display. They are not alone. Occasionally a vehicle tries to cross the overpass, but the bridge is usually too full of people on folding chairs waiting for the show. Some time after the sun sets, people finally meander back to their cars, “restored to their separate and defensible selves.”
Men in Mylex are still in the area, searching for something. Gladney’s doctor wants to talk to him, to see how his “death is progressing,” but Gladney does not want to know. In fact, he is afraid of what the computer already knows about him and therefore accepts no calls.
The supermarket has been unexpectedly rearranged, causing...
(The entire section is 489 words.)