The novel is about Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman or "fixer". While living in Kiev without official papers, Bok is arrested on suspicion of murder when a Christian boy is killed during Passover. Jailed without being officially charged and denied visitors or legal counsel, Bok is treated poorly and interrogated repeatedly. Among other things, he is asked about his political views, and replies that he is apolitical. During his many months in jail, he has time to contemplate his sad life and human nature in general. He finally finds it in his heart to forgive his former wife, who left him just before the novel began. This act of forgiveness is symbolically important in Bok's spiritual growth.
The novel ends with Bok finally being charged and brought to trial. In the final scene, on his way to court, he has an imaginary dialogue with the Tzar. Bok blames the Tzar for ruling over the most backward and regressive regime in Europe. He also famously concludes "there is no such thing as an apolitical man, especially a Jew."