Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019
Sarah and Macon are driving home from a vacation. A year earlier, twelve-year-old Ethan Leary had gone to summer camp in Virginia. One evening, he and another camper had snuck away to Burger Bonanza, where Ethan was senselessly murdered. As Macon drives, Sarah announces that she is leaving him. Macon points out to her that many couples who experience the death of a child separate, but he wants to stay together. Sarah finds Macon too predictable, methodical, and unemotional. Macon thinks Sarah is too spontaneous.
Macon makes a living writing travel books, primarily for businesspeople who, like Macon, hate to travel. They want to pretend they never leave home. Each book’s title includes the name of a particular city, for he feels that business travelers go only to cities. In his international books, Macon tells his readers how to travel with very little disruption in their lives, how to find hotels that have American-type service and restaurants that serve American-type food. He tells them where to find American chain restaurants, such as McDonald’s, what dishes to order because they are familiar, and where to find restaurants that serve things such as Chef Boyardee ravioli in Rome. He periodically updates his books.
When Sarah leaves him, Macon reorders his life. He starts wearing nothing but sweat suits. He washes his clothes in the bathtub as he showers. He cooks coffee and eggs and pops popcorn in his bedroom for breakfast. He disconnects the clothes dryer’s exhaust tube and teaches the cat to use the resulting hole as an exit and entrance to the house. He sleeps in what he thinks of as a body bag made of sheets sewn together.
Macon decides to use the coal shuttle to lower food for his dog, Edward, into the house. For this plan to work, however, Edward must be willing to eat in the basement, and Edward is terrified of the basement. Moreover, when Macon prepares to leave on his first trip to update a book since Sarah’s departure, he finds that Edward can no longer stay where he usually has because he has started to bite. Instead, Macon leaves Edward at the Meow-Bow Animal Hospital, where Macon meets Muriel Pritchard, who offers to train Edward.
One day, Macon reconnects the dryer so he can dry his sweat suits. The cat tries to get into the house, making a terrible noise that frightens Edward. Edward knocks Macon over, and Macon breaks his leg. Macon moves into his sister’s house and lives with her and his two brothers. On most evenings, they play a card game they call Vaccination. Only the siblings know how to play it. The men’s former wives tried to learn how to play, but they could not.
Macon’s siblings, like Macon himself, are very concerned with order. His sister Rose alphabetizes all the things in her kitchen, even though it means putting allspice next to ant poison. Macon’s brothers, who are divorced and live with Rose, are similarly fussy and orderly. However, Edward causes problems in Rose’s house. He attacks visitors and Macon’s brothers. One of the brothers wants Edward put to sleep, but Macon refuses because Edward was Ethan’s dog. At the insistence of his siblings, Macon calls Muriel to train Edward.
Muriel is chatty and disorganized; Macon is silent and organized. During the lessons, she talks constantly. Macon thinks Muriel is much too hard on Edward. After Edward lunges at Muriel and she hangs him briefly on his leash, Macon tells her not to come back.
On a trip to New York City, Macon goes to a restaurant on top of a skyscraper. He has a panic attack. He phones his sister, but she is not home. Instead, he reaches his brother Charles, who is shut in the pantry because Edward attacks him whenever he tries to leave. Charles wants to call the police to come shoot Edward. Macon insists that Charles not call the police. Macon tries to call Sarah, but she is not home. He finally reaches Muriel, who says she will rescue Charles. Then, Macon’s panic attack ends, and he returns to eat his meal. Muriel again starts training Edward.
Macon and Muriel soon become lovers, and Macon moves in with Muriel. Muriel has a son, Alexander, who is seven years old and sickly. After Ethan’s death, Macon felt that he could never enjoy sex and never interact joyfully with a young boy again. He finds that he enjoys sex with Muriel, as well as shopping with, playing with, and teaching Alexander.
Nonetheless, when Macon returns from one of his trips, he drives past Muriel’s house and returns to his house, where Sarah is now living. He and Sarah reconcile with each other. Then, Macon goes to Paris, France. He finds that Muriel is on the plane with him. When in Paris, he tries to avoid Muriel, but she uses Macon’s guidebook and so stays at the same hotel as Macon. They go to some dinners together.
Julian Edge, Macon’s publisher, courts Rose. She and Julian get married, but shortly thereafter, Rose moves back into her own house, leaving Julian. Julian asks Macon how he can get Rose back. Macon advises him to ask Rose to put his office in order.
In Paris, Macon hurts his back and is unable to travel to finish the work of updating his guidebook. He calls Julian’s office and finds Rose working there. Rose arranges to send Sarah to Paris to travel around the city for Macon and do his updating for him. Macon tells Sarah, truthfully, that he is not involved in Muriel’s coming to Paris and does not want her there. After a while, however, he decides that he wants to return to Muriel rather than stay with Sarah. At the end of the book, Macon, with a sore back, gets into a taxi to go to the airport. He stops on the way to pick up Muriel, who is herself trying to get a cab to the airport.