Honora Wapshot is an eccentric spinster and the septuagenarian guardian of the Wapshot treasure trove, oldest living descendant of a family that settled in the town of St. Botolphs, Massachusetts, in the seventeenth century. Honora supervises—but mainly underwrites with quarterly checks from a trust fund—the lives of her two young cousins, Moses and Coverly Wapshot. The two brothers have lost both their mother, Sarah, and their father, Leander, who drowned while swimming.
After a Christmas visit to Honora during which he is haunted by the ghost of his high-minded father, Coverly travels west. He returns to a world that would have baffled his father—the Talifer Missile Site. At this top-secret complex of experimental laboratories and space-travel equipment, some irrevocable error by a personnel-selecting machine has recently placed Coverly in the department of public relations, although he was trained for computer programming. He lives in Talifer with his wife, Betsey, and their son, Binxey, but their social life in the community is a little bleak. One day Betsey, after watching with bland indifference as a neighbor falls to his death on a cement terrace, neglects to notify anyone because of her vague fear that she might violate security regulations. Coming home one day, Coverly learns that their garbage pail has been taken by a neighbor, and Coverly and the neighbor’s husband come to blows and bites over the incident. Shortly afterward, Betsey and Coverly attempt to meet their neighbors (who have never called on them since their arrival) by inviting twenty-five people to a cocktail party; the plan is aborted, however, when no one appears. Betsey is shattered, and her reaction takes the form of a lasting resentment of Coverly, whom she blames for making her live in Talifer.
Through a strange accident of circumstance, Coverly is offered a position on the personal staff of Dr. Lemuel Cameron, the egomaniacal titan of the missile complex. Coverly, however, is entirely at the mercy of Cameron’s caprice and soon discovers that he is nothing more than a chauffeur for the great man. Also, beneath the surface of Cameron’s brilliance and cultural pretensions (he is capable of quoting a little poetry) lies the viciousness of a man who professes a belief in the blessedness of the universe but who talks with perfect equanimity of the destruction of the world. Cameron also suffers agonies of lust that can be satisfied only by a mistress in Rome, beats his subordinates in ferocious outbursts of temper, and has driven his son to insanity by practicing hideous extremes of cruelty in the name of discipline. In a short time, therefore, Coverly finds that he has hitched his wagon to a rather sinister star.
When Coverly’s security clearance at the missile site is withdrawn because of Honora’s delinquency on her federal income tax, he expects that Cameron will get him reinstated. When he goes for that purpose to Washington, where Cameron is being questioned by a congressional committee, Coverly witnesses a rather startling phenomenon: As a result of Cameron’s savage temperament, his own security clearance is withdrawn.
Moses Wapshot has trouble with his work but far more trouble with his wife, Melissa. He works at a brokerage house (presumably in New York City), and the couple lives with their son in an affluent suburban cocoon called Proxmire Manor, where the only thing that occupies the police is the...
(The entire section is 1407 words.)