As the novel opens, Earl Peckham is recuperating at Dappled Shade from a bout of hepatitis. There he pursues the rest home’s rich owner, Nelly Aspenwall DelBelly, despite her advanced age and weight and her apparent lack of wit, for his novel The Sorry Scheme of Things Entire has sold only three copies, and he has been denied tenure at Windsor College, Wyoming, because no one will sign up for his courses. He therefore needs a patron to allow himself the time to write another book, his royalties being obviously insufficient for that end.
A major obstacle to Peckham’s matrimonial efforts is his preciousness—what Poppy McCloud calls his “eyebrow combing”—the same flaw that afflicts his writing. Although he believes that he practices the art of conversation and Binnie informs him that her Aunt Nelly says, “You work your mouth pretty good,” this expression reveals the gap between Peckham and his would-be spouse. Mrs. DelBelly is a literalist, whereas Peckham cannot resist toying with words. De Vries repeatedly creates scenes that remind one of the exchanges between the obtuse Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx. Thus, when Mrs. DelBelly observes that her grandfather was a minister who often preached while on horseback, Peckham quips, “Sort of the sermon on the mount, you might say.” Mrs. DelBelly matter-of-factly replies, “Well, I doubt he was that good. Hardly in the class with our Lord.”
Soon Peckham decides that Mrs. DelBelly’s niece, Binnie Aspenwall, would be a more fitting mate. In addition to being the heiress to her rich aunt’s fortune and so in a position to support him, she is young, beautiful, sexually liberated, and clever—all the things that her aunt is not. Binnie finds Peckham attractive, too. Indeed, she tells him that he could easily play Svengali to her Trilby, referring to the hypnotic power of the musician in George du Maurier’s novel. Much as Peckham would enjoy playing this role, one of the doctors at Dappled Shade dissuades him by observing that Binnie’s fiancé, Dempster Hyster, would knock him “into the next county” if he attempted it.
Peckham therefore leaves the rest home for an autographing tour, determined to track down the three copies of his novel and sign them so that the bookstores will be unable to return them even if they remain—as is likely—unsold. His first stop is Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he finds his book still on the shelf at Barclay’s Book Nook. He also finds the window full of Break Slowly, Dawn by Poppy McCloud, who shares Peckham’s publisher, Dogwinkle and Dearie.
That afternoon, a reporter for the Cedar Rapids Sentinel interviews Peckham and asks for his opinion of Poppy McCloud. Stung by professional jealousy, he responds with a monosyllable: “Trash.” That word will return to change his life.
Peckham’s next stop is Omaha; De Vries uses the loose structure of the romance, with his protagonist as a knight errant, or erring, traveling from misadventure to misadventure across the country. Here Peckham encounters Poppy McCloud herself. While he has no respect for her work, she has read and enjoyed his. She even buys a copy of his novel and asks him to autograph it. Soon Peckham and McCloud are writing—and living—together. She serves as his patron, and he, unknown to her, will soon be her Svengali.
A compulsive smoker, McCloud asks Peckham to hypnotize her to cure her. He uses this opportunity to change her writing style as well. Instead of popular potboilers, she begins to produce more polished and profound prose. Her stories begin to...
(The entire section is 1479 words.)