Toward the end of the second section of the book, Charles Swallow recounts a vision: “With that odd unreality we experience in dreams, I seemed unable to do anything right, but bungled whatever I put my hand to.” Though the events of the dream are indeed unreal, the incompetence that they expose is not.
As the Picayune Blade’s “Lamplighter,” Swallow advises those who write to him in distress. He takes this role of Dutch uncle seriously and so cannot refuse Charles Appleyard’s plea for help with his daughter. Years earlier, Swallow and Elizabeth had been discovered together in a coal bin, and this traumatic experience had arrested her sexual and intellectual development.
Swallow attempts to repair the damage by exposing her to F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he succeeds all too well. Soon Elizabeth runs away to Greenwich Village to live with Danny Dolan; she decides to have a child without the nuisance of a husband, imitating the uninhibited Isadora Duncan. She chooses Swallow as the father; even though he initially refuses, he later consents when he sees her getting into a taxicab with his brother-in-law, Nickie Sherman, his other botched case.
To persuade Nickie to abandon his unremunerative detective work for a regular job, Swallow arranges a supposed murder that reveals exactly how inept Sherman can be. Instead of curing Nickie, though, the exposure induces schizophrenia: Half of Nickie remains a mediocre sleuth, but the other half becomes Johnny Velours, master thief.
It is to save his sister’s marriage from further strain that Swallow agrees to father Beth Appleyard’s child. After she becomes pregnant, she has second thoughts. When her father and grandmother are killed in a plane crash, she reverts to her adolescent inability to cope with life.
Swallow thus fails to help the two people he has tried so hard to aid, watching them drift off into insanity. Frustrated, he, too, takes refuge in temporary madness. All ends happily, though, as Nickie recovers his sanity and prepares for a teaching job, Elizabeth moves to California and marries well, and Swallow emerges from his experiences a wiser man.