When his father dies, author Michael Rips and fellow surviving family members begin the melancholy process of sorting through personal effects. Rips makes a strange discovery: a series of paintings bearing his father's signature, all featuring a naked black woman in a variety of poses. Neither Rips nor his siblings had the slightest inkling of their father's inclination toward painting, and none recognize the woman. They are forced to acknowledge that their father was a solitary and distant presence and a man whom they barely knew.
Rips decides to investigate and learn what he can about the woman and the nature of her relationship to his father. He initially suspects that she is someone with whom his father had romantic liaisons. But his mother has only happy memories of her late husband, none of which suggest even a hint of infidelity. And his father's closest associates, each of whom agreeably recalls the man, can shed little light as to his character.
Throughout his inquiry Rips makes a series of discoveries about his own past that are at times bizarre but are always hilarious. For example, benign aunts and uncles whom Rips thought were mild-mannered hotel owners turn out to have been hard living, hard drinking brothel keepers. Rips must eventually admit that the search for the identity of his father is serving more to unveil questions and subsequent answers about himself.
In the wake of this admission, Rips turns for insight to the Old Testament, and the philosopher Levinas. He carefully examines his own motivations, and sees the times he spent in the company of his father in a new light. When Rips finally finds the woman who posed for the paintings, he can at last acknowledge that the genuine object of his search was in fact his own identity.