Brent Bishop lives in an affluent home in contemporary Chicago. His dad has been steadily moving up in the corporate world and can now bankroll the lifestyle Brent's parents want, a private school for Brent, an expensive house, cars, all the "right" things to make life happy. There is an inner restlessness, dissatisfaction, and feeling of isolation in Brent that his dad's money cannot fix.
Whirligig moves Brent from Chicago, via Greyhound bus, on a circumventing journey of the United States: Washington, California, Florida, and Maine.
Brent meets obnoxious and unsavory people on the bus and in cheap hotels, but makes a friend in a youth hostel in San Diego who gives him a copy of Two Years before the Mast. The camaraderie enjoyed by the transient residents of the hostel attracts Brent. He begins looking at his fellow travelers differently. The jostling bus ride around the country affords him much time for reflection and self-examination.
Fleischman uses a first person narrative and an unusual plot construction. Unexpectedly, the reader finds himself reading about two young girls in Maine and a ritual one of them has developed to bring a special boy into the life of her best friend. The girls seat themselves under the whirligig constructed and installed by Brent, the last of the four he built. The story flashes forward in reverse chronological order to four separate stories about the encounters of people and the whirligigs.
The whirligigs of the story become a metaphor for Brent's life as it flashes, twists, and turns, in chaotic disorder. Then order is restored as he fashions each whirligig and finds just the right spot for it. The whirligigs take on lives of their own as they affect the lives of individuals in each location.
An economy of language utilizes tangible metaphors as seen in an example taken from "The Afterlife." "The headaches, like a wrecking ball working on his skull, came less often, replaced by the endless tolling in his mind of the word murderer." Another example is found in "Everybody Swing!" "He felt empty inside, like a chicken from the store with its plastic bag of organs removed."
There are a couple of instances of profanity, but they are not contrived. They help the reader better understand the situation and character.
(The entire section is 1,414 words.)