Chapter 1 Summary

Julius is a Nigerian-born doctor living in the Upper West Side of New York City. In the final year of his residency in psychiatry, Julius decides to start taking long walks in the evening as a way of clearing his head and relaxing from the intense work of his profession.

A solitary, contemplative person, Julius traces his decision to start taking walks to his previous fascination with the migration of birds across the city, which he watches from his window. Among the many birds he sees, he prefers geese, and often finds himself waiting to see them. While he waits, he uses the Internet to listen to classical music stations from Europe.

As Julius begins to walk, he realizes that the physical activity of pushing himself through the city, among its citizens and tall buildings, can be a crucial release from the “tightly regulated mental environment of work.”

One Sunday morning, Julius walks down to Columbus Circle, where he finds crowds of people lining the street. He realizes that it is the day of the New York City marathon. To avoid the din of people, he decides to go inside one of the Time Warner towers where there are shops. But he can’t get to the buildings and decides to go visit one of his former teachers, Professor Saito, who lives nearby.

Professor Saito is a Japanese American professor of literature who is eighty-nine years old. During World War II, Saito was interned along with his family by the American government. When Julius gets to the apartment, he discovers that Saito has cancer, which the professor says is not too bad even though he is connected to a urinary drainage bag.

Julius tells Saito about his walks and about his work at the hospital. He tells him a story about a conservative Christian family whose thirteen-year-old son needed a leukemia treatment that could possibly leave him infertile. Even though the doctors recommended taking a sperm sample so the son could have...

(The entire section is 562 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

One night, Julius is on the phone with his former girlfriend, Nadege, who has recently moved to San Francisco, when he hears chanting and drumming coming from outside. He looks down and sees a crowd of women on a march. They are chanting, “Women’s bodies, women’s lives / We will not be terrorized,” in a demonstration against rape and sexual assault.

Earlier in the day, Julius goes out walking through Central Park. Noticing the parade of dogs passing by, he thinks about the relative warmth of the November weather. He sees a friend of his, a young professor in the Earth Sciences Department. This friend is a jazz aficionado and has tried on many occasions to expose Julius to the musical genre, but Julius finds himself unable to appreciate the famous American art form.

That evening on the train, Julius sees a crippled man who is exaggerating his condition to solicit donations. Getting off the train, he sees two different blind men walking with canes that have tennis balls attached to the bases. He thinks about Obatala, the African demigod who is said to be responsible for the creation of handicapped people. Within the Yoruba culture, handicapped people pray to Obatala, which strikes Julius as a strange relationship between god and supplicant.

Before going to see a movie, The Last King of Scotland, Julius kills time in a bookstore reading a book recently published by one of his patients at the psychiatric hospital. The book is a biography of an early settler in New York, a Dutch colonist who was responsible for the murders of many Native Americans. Julius believes that the work of his patient, a scholar in early Dutch America, is connected to her depression because of all the horrific things that took place during this period that she studies so closely.

Although he has learned to have low expectations of American movies set in Africa, after seeing The Last King of Scotland, Julius is pleasantly surprised by the movie because of the complex, nuanced portrait it paints of Idi Amin, the former dictator of Uganda.

Julius thinks back to a dinner he once attended at the luxurious home of an Indian surgeon named Dr. Gupta. Dr. Gupta and his family had been forced to flee Uganda because of Idi Amin’s horrific crimes. Although Julius was the only person at the party of African extraction, Dr. Gupta said to the whole group that when he thinks of Africans, he wants to spit.

Waiting for the train home, Julius sits on a bench next to two white children who are visiting New York with their parents. The children speculate on whether Julius is a gangster. They ask if he is a gangster, and if he is, why he isn’t dressed like one. 

Chapter 3 Summary

One rainy afternoon, Julius goes out walking. He has been using his free time to collaborate with one of his colleagues on a research paper investigating the correlation between strokes in the elderly and the onset of depression.

As he walks through the park, he thinks of his grandmother, who lives in Brussels. Julius has not spoken to his grandmother in some time because when he was growing up in Nigeria, she was estranged from his mother. His mother always tells him his grandmother is a selfish, rude person, but the few experiences Julius has had with his grandmother seem to refute this reputation. He thinks of a time when his grandmother visited his family in Nigeria. They went on a trip to see a series of sacred monoliths at Olumo Rock in Abeokuta. While his parents go investigate one section of the park, Julius is left with his grandmother. Although he and his grandmother do not speak during the time they are alone, Julius feels that some powerful connection has been made, and he treasures their silence.

He walks deeper into the park as the rain picks up. Drenched, he takes cover under an awning. He realizes that he is standing in front of the American Folk Art Museum, a building he has never entered, so he decides to go in and see the exhibits. Inside, he sees works of art that he describes as “open-faced and awkward.” He wanders into an exhibition of the early-nineteenth-century New England painter John Brewster and has trouble tearing himself way from the artwork on display. Brewster often painted children. As he was a deaf man, his subjects were often deaf as well. Julius finds himself contemplating the mystical way people revere the blind, thinking of Ray Charles and Borges, while assuming that the deaf are somehow mentally retarded, even though they are not. The Brewster paintings suggest the deep connection between the artist and the subject, both outsiders of society but both equally human.

Finally, Julius leaves the museum and catches a cab home. The cab driver is an African, and he wants to talk to Julius even though Julius is not in the mood for conversation. In response to Julius’s silence, the driver turns on a talk-radio station, which ruins Julius’s interior reveries. When the driver takes him several blocks past his apartment and refuses to turn back, Julius decides to walk the rest of the way home in the rain. 

Chapter 4 Summary

The next day, Julius takes a circuitous route home after attending a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y. Because of the rain, many people have avoided the park, so the area has an oddly silent, empty quality. In a cove formed by two large rocks, Julius sits down on a pile of gravel, then stretches out and lays his head down against the pebbled surface. He thinks back to the reading and remembers how the poet, a Polish man with a thick accent, had decided not to read his poetry and instead gave a discussion about the roots of persecution, which targets a specific race, tribe, or group.

Later that week, Julius senses the first hints of winter as he leaves the hospital and takes the subway home. Although psychiatry residencies are said to be easier than other residencies, Julius finds himself often weighed down by his experiences on the ward. The story of one patient in particular, referred to simply as M., settles in Julius’s mind. M. is a thirty-two-year-old divorced man who is prone to wild delusions.

When the train reaches Julius’s stop, he is unable to get off. Instead, he takes the train all the way downtown and gets off at Wall Street. He is struck by the huge, beautiful station there, and then he goes above ground and walks toward the Hudson River. He notices people in the great windowed gyms looking at the city while they pedal exercise bikes and run on treadmills. He notices the wide variety people on the streets—Indian American men, black women, white men and women in business suits.

He ends up at Trinity Church and decides he should go inside and pray for his patient, M. But all the doors are locked. Instead, Julius wanders through the cemetery, looking at the graves of famous New Yorkers, such as Alexander Hamilton and John Jacob Astor.

He makes his way toward the river, where he thinks about how New York is so well protected from the water, how there are few natural banks on Manhattan Island. He finds a ledge from which he can reach his hand into the water and braces himself against the cold. Going back north, he winds his way toward the former site of the World Trade Center. He turns off onto a tranquil residential street, enters a bar, and buys a beer. A man at the bar introduces himself, explaining that he works as a security guard at the Folk Art Museum, where he saw Julius just the day before. The man explains that he is from the small island nation of Barbuda and asks Julius about Africa. But Julius isn’t in the mood for conversation, so he leaves after finishing his beer. 

Chapter 5 Summary

One day earlier in the summer, Julius goes with his girlfriend Nadege out to Queens with a group from her church called the Welcomers. During the trip, Julius experiences a vision in which he connects Nadege to a girl he had fallen in love with twenty-five years earlier. The girl was in his elementary school class in Nigeria, and she had polio. When watching her limp, Julius felt struck by a protective affection. As he gets off of the bus in Queens with Nadege, he notices that Nadege’s limp, although much slighter, reminds him of the girl in Nigeria.

The purpose of the Welcomers group is to visit immigrants housed in a detention facility. They go to talk to the people and offer them the simple support of human company. Julius sits down in front of a young African man. The man’s name is Saidu, and he tells Julius about his epic journey from his hometown in Liberia to America. Liberia was in the grips of a civil war, and after his mother and sister were shot, Saidu fled. By pretending to be mentally handicapped, he was able to travel into Mali with some Nigerian soldiers. There, he met someone who helped him get into Tangier, a city on the Moroccan coast of the Mediterranean. After a while, he was able to travel into Spain in a boat, and from across Spain, to Lisbon, Portugal. He spent two years in Lisbon, living in a roomful of other illegal African immigrants and working first as a butcher’s assistant and then as a barber.

He saved up his money and purchased a ticket that would take him to JFK Airport in New York. But he was detained upon arrival and sent to the facility in Queens, where he has been for years as his case has worked its way through the courts system. Saidu says that he doesn’t want to be deported, that he wants to stay in America. When it is time to leave, Julius promises him that he will return to see him, but he never does.

In early December, Julius meets a Haitian man in the underground section of Penn Station. The man is a shoe shiner, and although Julius doesn’t like the awkwardness of sitting so high while someone works on his feet, he agrees to a shoeshine when the man offers. The man, named Pierre, tells Julius his story about coming to America, about how he used to be a hairdresser and, before that, a servant to a wealthy man in Haiti, with whom he immigrated to escape the violence in Haiti. After his patron died, he took the job of hairdressing. He is married to a Christian woman named Juliette, with whom he runs a school for orphans in Chinatown.

Chapter 6 Summary

Julius thinks back to his upbringing, and his attendance at NMS, a Nigerian military school. The school was famous within the country for producing mature, disciplined graduates. Although attending NMS was his father’s idea, Julius willingly goes off to the boarding school. There he finds himself conforming to the new hierarchies and rigid schedules and grows up quickly.

During his third year at NMS, Julius’s father dies suddenly, of tuberculosis. At home with his mother, Julius learns more about his family, about how his father had courted his mother, a German woman named Julianne Miller. His mother’s strikingly blonde hair has faded to a mixture of gray now, which Julius notices as she tells him about her upbringing in the German town of Magenburg, stories she has never told her son before. She talks about growing up most of her childhood without her father, who remained in a prison camp in Russia long after World War II ended. She talks about living through the trauma of the postwar years, when Germany was ravaged by soldiers of the Red Army of the Soviet Union, with only her mother to protect her.

After the funeral, Julius returns quickly to school, eager to lose himself in his studies and the routine of life at NMS. One afternoon during rest period, Julius is hauled into the office of Musibau, one of the officers at the school. Musibau accuses Julius of stealing his newspaper, but Julius knows he is innocent, that this is a case of mistaken identity. Musibau takes Julius around the school, inside each house where the students are assembled, and declares Julius to be a thief and a liar. The next day, Julius is in a drawing class when Musibau enters the room. He calls Julius to the front of the classroom. He then has Julius remove his shorts and proceeds to whip him with a cane.

At the end of the semester, Julius goes home but does not tell his mother about what happened with Musibau. As it turns out, Julius becomes more respected at school because of the public thrashing. The other students tell stories about how toughly Julius took the punishment, and they exaggerate the number of hits he received. By the end of his fourth year, Julius has become one of the best-performing students in the school, is chosen to be a prefect, and is even popular with some of the girls at the other schools in town.

As he nears graduation, he takes the SAT and applies to American schools without telling his mother. He is accepted by Maxwell and is offered a full scholarship. He borrows money from uncles to buy a plane ticket to New York and leaves Africa to begin his life in a new country.

Chapter 7 Summary

As winter deepens in New York, Julius decides to use all of his available vacation days to take a trip to Brussels. He goes online and finds an apartment to rent in the central part of the city. He exchanges emails with the apartment’s owner, Mayken, and settles his housing for the weeks he will be there. He buys a plane ticket and prepares for the trip.

On the flight, Julius is seated next to an elderly woman. Normally Julius enjoys talking to his neighbors on airplanes, but this time, he is already asleep behind a sleeping mask when she sits down next to him. As the food cart comes by, he is deciding whether to have something when the woman comments that she envies Julius. She says she wishes she were the kind of person who could fall asleep on an airplane. Julius takes off his eye mask and they begin to talk.

The woman asks Julius where he is from, and he tells her he is from Nigeria. She says that she knows a lot of Nigerians and that they are arrogant. Ghanaians, on the other hand, are preferable to work with because they are calmer and more comfortable with their place in the world. She explains that she’s a gastrointestinal surgeon, retired now, who worked in Philadelphia for the past forty-five years. She tells Julius her name is Dr. Maillotte.

Dr. Maillotte talks about growing up in Belgium and the environment during World War II. The people of the country foolishly believed that they could withstand the Nazi assault, but it only took seventeen days for Hitler and his army to conquer the country.

After they both sleep for a little while, Julius wakes up and Dr. Maillotte talks more about her life, places she has been in Europe and Africa, wealthy and powerful families she has known over the years. She speaks of one family in particular, the Empains of Belgium, a wealthy industrialist clan with two sons, Gregoire and Jean. She is on her way to visit Gregoire currently. Jean is the more outspoken and flashy brother, and in 1978, he was kidnapped by terrorists. The family was willing to pay the ransom, but the French authorities wouldn’t allow it. Frustrated that they weren’t being paid, the kidnappers chopped off Jean’s finger and mailed it home. Eventually, the police ambushed the kidnappers, killing one of them, and rescued Jean. Dr. Maillotte remarks about how much trouble people are willing to go through for money, which she refers to as “tiny little slips of paper.”

They arrive in Belgium in the morning. Dr. Maillotte invites Julius over to her house for dinner. 

Chapter 8 Summary

At the airport, Julius meets Mayken, the woman who is renting him the apartment. They discuss the details of the arrangement, and she has him sign a number of complicated documents. As they drive away from the city, she describes the history of the Brussels, how it was originally split between a French population and a Flemish population, but since then, the French population has grown faster and overwhelmed the Flemish. She also discusses the small and prominent minority of African and Asian immigrants.

While Mayken describes Brussels, Julius thinks back to Dr. Maillotte, who was fifteen years old at the outbreak of World War II, and connects back to Saito, his former teacher, who was nearly thirty and imprisoned in...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Julius spends his days in Brussels alone, reading inside the apartment or going out to take long walks through the city. One day, he goes to a nearly empty café, where he is approached by an attractive waitress. The waitress sits down at Julius’s table and asks him questions about his life. But Julius isn’t interested, even though he finds the waitress quite attractive. He leaves the café at the same time as the only other patron, a middle-aged woman with blondish gray hair and striking eyes. They step out onto the street, which is blanketed in rain, and begin to talk. Julius ends up going back to a hotel room with this older woman and making love to her. She tells him she is a diplomat from the Czech Republic, and Julius,...

(The entire section is 527 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Dreaming of running a marathon with his sister, Julius wakes up abruptly. At first he doesn’t know where is, and reaches across the bed checking to see whether he is sleeping alone. Slowly the particulars of his situation arrive, and he remembers he is in Brussels, staying in a rented apartment around Christmastime. Outside, the rain continues to fall, a deluge that has continued for seven days.

Julius thinks back to the only other time in his life when he experienced such continuous rain. He is nine years old, the year before he is to go off to boarding school. He is left at home after school with his paternal grandmother while his parents are at work. One of the things Julius likes to do when he is home alone with...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Julius arrives early at the restaurant where he is to meet Dr. Maillotte. Instead of waiting at the restaurant, he decides to go across the street to the Notre Dame de la Chapelle, a huge Catholic church. It is still raining heavily outside, and he rushes through the deluge and enters the church. He is surprised to find the church completely empty except for someone playing an organ. He recognizes the music as a Baroque composition, but complicated by a low hum. Julius realizes that the hum is coming from a vacuum cleaner, and that the music isn’t being played on an organ but is recorded.

Julius thinks back to a few weeks earlier, during the first days of his trip to Brussels. He goes to a restaurant and club that is...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Julius leaves Brussels and takes his flight home. As the plane descends over New York, Julius remembers going to the Queens Museum of Art and seeing there a built-to-scale model of the entire city. He’s struck by how similar the city, seen from a thousand feet above, looks to that model.

The next day, Julius fights jet lag and worries over his return to work. Since he’s been away for four weeks, taking all his vacation days at once, his colleagues at the hospital are likely to be unhappy with him because of the extra work they’ve had to take on in his absence.

He decides to go to the International Center for Photography and see an exhibition of the work of Martin Munkacsi, a Hungarian photographer who...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

At the beginning of February, Julius goes down to Wall Street to meet with his accountant and prepare his taxes. The accountant has told Julius to bring a check for his services, but as Julius gets on the subway, he realizes that he has forgotten to bring his checkbook.

When he gets off the train at Wall Street, Julius looks for an ATM from which to withdraw the cash he owes Parrish, the accountant. He notices how different the area looks now, in full daylight, than it did back in November, when he took his nighttime walk from Wall Street to the Hudson River and back around to Ground Zero. He finds a cash machine inside a pharmacy and proceeds to withdraw the money, but suddenly he realizes he has forgotten his...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

Julius goes to visit his former professor, the elderly Japanese American man who lives near Columbus Circle. As Saito welcomes Julius in, he explains that he has been sleeping on a pallet in the living room because his bedroom has become infested with bedbugs. He says that the bugs have made life pretty rough, as they bite him constantly.

Saito says that his spirits have been raised, however, by a visit to see the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center. The musicians played a piece of music by Bach that Saito found transcendent. The composition was about coffee, and how many people during Bach’s era were afraid of coffee’s affects. Saito sees a connection between the way people felt about coffee then and the way...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

Julius dreams about a bombing in a market in Basra, a city in Iraq. He walks through the devastation, around the corpses of people and dogs, and begins to feel very tired. He finds his mother in the pet market, wearing a burka, and she is with Julius’s former girlfriend, Nadege, who is also wearing the Muslim garment. Nadege tells Julius that the only things worse than bombings are bedbugs.

Julius wakes up. It is one o’clock in the morning, and he has fallen asleep in his clothes. He gets some food out of the fridge and eats it while standing at the window in his apartment, feeling the harsh winter wind. He takes some medicine and goes back to sleep.

The next day, Julius goes to visit Dr. Saito. Julius...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

One morning in March, Julius calls Saito’s apartment to check on his ailing friend. A woman other than Mary the nurse answers the phone and tells Julius that Saito has died. Julius asks about a memorial service, but she says there is one to which only family will be invited. She says that there might be a service in the fall at Maxwell College.

Julius is shocked, and not knowing who else to turn to, he brashly calls Nadege in San Francisco, where it is three hours earlier and therefore still early in the morning. Nadege sleepily answers the phone. Julius can hear a man’s voice in the room. He tells Nadege the bad news, which is she is sorry to hear. Then Nadege tells him that she is engaged, to a Haitian American...

(The entire section is 625 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

As spring unfolds in New York, with flowers blooming and the sun shining more brightly, Julius feels himself becoming more open to socializing with friends again. Julius realizes that this is a personal trend: during the winter months, he shuts down and wants to be alone, but in the warmer months, he feels a more powerful need to be around other people.

One afternoon, Julius goes to a picnic in Central Park with some friends. Among the friends is Moji, the sister of his old school chum, and Lisa-Anne, the new girlfriend of one of Julius’s older friends.

As Julius and his friends enjoy their picnic, they see a plane flying low overhead. As the plane passes, Julius sees three white circles emerge. He...

(The entire section is 613 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

One evening, Julius is walking home through his neighborhood. On a corner, he passes two young African American men. He acknowledges the men and moves on. Later, as he passes through Morningside Park, he notices movement in the shadows. The men reappear, walk toward him, and then proceed to beat him up. Julius falls to the ground and covers his head with his hands. The men kick and punch him till he is bloody and bruised, but he can tell that they do not mean to kill him. During the beating, he notices that the two are younger than he first thought: they are no older than fifteen.

The muggers take Julius’s wallet and flee. He slowly gets up and makes his way home. Once inside the apartment, he looks in the mirror and...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

Julius thinks back to his father’s death, and all of the proceedings around the event. Because Julius’s mother is overwhelmed with the situation, Julius’s father’s sister, his aunt Tinu, takes over much of the planning. A few weeks before the burial, she takes Julius to get a new suit to wear to the funeral. The tailor’s shop is in a rough part of town, and Julius remembers a group of haggard-looking children staring at them when they exit their car and go inside. The suit-making experience is pleasant for Julius. He finds that giving up his personal space, as he does at the doctor and when he is getting a haircut, relaxes and comforts him somehow.

The funeral takes place on a hot, sunny day, which runs...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

Moji’s boyfriend, a wealthy banker named John Musson, invites Julius to a party he’s having at his apartment. Although Julius is not looking forward to the party and has been thinking of backing out, on the day of the event, he decides to go. He leaves work early and takes a long walk north to John’s apartment. He passes though the hospital grounds, noting how the original names of the buildings have been altered to make room for the sponsoring donors who want their names on the front of things they have funded. He passes by a huge old theater, the Loews 175th Street Theatre, which is now used as a church by a minister popularly known as Reverend Ike.

He passes by the Cloisters Museum, built as a model of medieval...

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

In the summer, Julius finishes his residency at the hospital and joins a private practice on the Bowery, in Lower Manhattan. Although he has an offer from a practice in New Jersey that would pay him more money, he knows that remaining in New York City is the only choice he can make. He moves out of his apartment and finds a new place in the West Village. He finally has hand surgery to repair the damage inflicted by the muggers.

Listening to the radio one day in his new office, he hears an announcement for a concert at Carnegie Hall of one of Mahler’s last compositions. He buys a ticket and plans to attend the concert. He contemplates Mahler’s fascination with endings, how throughout his career, the great composer...

(The entire section is 587 words.)