Paul Hammer is shown around the village of Bullet Park by a real estate agent. The foibles and residents of Bullet Park, which is connected to New York City by a commuter railroad, are the subject of the real estate agent’s babble. Little or nothing is learned about the mysterious Mr. Hammer, who is about to buy a house.
Eliot Nailles is introduced to Hammer and his wife at church. Nailles is mildly irritated by the priest’s pun upon their names (Hammer and Nailles), which strikes him as having a kind of inevitability about it. The two most important people in Nailles’s life are his wife, Nellie, and his son, Tony, whom he dearly loves but has trouble approaching. Though she has pretensions in the arts, Nellie, coming home from a disastrous day in New York, is shocked by the sexual crudity of a play and other threats to her sensibilities. For Nellie and Tony, Bullet Park is a sanctuary. Nailles wins for his family this sanctuary by setting off daily for the city on the 7:56 to write copy for a mouthwash, Spang.
One day Tony refuses to get out of bed. The doctor finds nothing wrong with him. A psychiatrist gives Nellie a moral lecture about the lack of values of her class. A somnambulist expert gives Tony a series of tests and submits a bill for five hundred dollars. Nailles is distraught and cannot understand what is wrong with his son.
Mr. and Mrs. Hammer invite the Nailles to a dinner party, though they have been no more than introduced. The evening is a disaster. Mrs. Nailles insults her husband and ridicules suburban life: “All you have to do is to get your clothes at Brooks, catch the train, and show up in church once a week and no one will ever ask a question about your identity.”
That lack of identity appears to be illustrated a few days later when a man named Shinglehouse, a regular on the 7:56, commits suicide by throwing himself under an express train. Though the rhythm of life seems barely disturbed by the event, Nailles is deeply shaken. Returning home, he tries harder to communicate with Tony about what he feels, but Tony only sleeps. In his mind he reviews difficult episodes in his attempts to be a parent. Nailles remembers the time Tony was arrested for attacking a teacher who denied him the privilege of playing football. He recalls another time when Tony briefly disappeared overnight, staying with a Mrs. Hubbard, whom he had met in a bookstore. Later, Tony invited Mrs. Hubbard to dinner in a grotesque parody of social convention. Nailles further remembers the confrontation with his son that immediately preceded his son’s taking to bed, in which he was told: “The only reason you love me . . . is because you can give me things.”
Desperate to do something about Tony’s strange illness, Nellie takes the advice of a former cleaning woman and looks up Swami Rutuola, who lives above a funeral parlor in Bullet Park. The Swami visits Tony, asks him to repeat “love” and “hope” hundreds of times, and, as if by magic, Tony will thereby be cured.
Hammer, writing in his journal, reveals his madness in his own words, and a long interpolated letter from his mother shows her madness as well. Hammer first becomes aware of Nailles by a small article in a dental journal announcing his promotion to the head of the mouthwash division of his company. From that moment, Hammer settles on Nailles as his target for assassination, though he...
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will later focus on Tony as the best way of hurting the father.
Hammer’s account reveals his life as a lonely drifter. He was born out of wedlock and was hidden away at school. Until he settles upon Nailles, he is wholly without purpose and almost entirely cut off from normal human contact. In one passage, for instance, he describes his travels about the world in terms of the furniture of his hotel rooms. His mother, Gretchen Oxencroft, lays out the entire conspiracy on one of his infrequent visits: Hammer should settle in a place like Bullet Park, fix upon an advertising executive like Nailles (who represents the shallowest aspects of modern culture), and then nail him to the door of Christ’s church as a statement that will wake up the world. With a purpose in his life, Hammer follows the plan like the dedicated assassin he has become. His marriage is an emotionally meaningless event that becomes part of his disguise as he moves into Bullet Park.
Nailles sponsors Hammer as a member of the volunteer fire department and accompanies him on a fishing trip. Hammer settles upon Tony’s death as the best way of injuring Nailles. As Tony works directing traffic at a neighborhood party, Hammer knocks him out and drags him off to church. Hammer, however, had told Swami Rutuola of the intended murder, and the Swami comes running to Nailles. With a chain saw, Nailles cuts through the door of the church and rescues his son from the altar where he was about to be sacrificed.