Miller opens the novel with a burst of philosophy, reflecting on life in general. What will follow, he implies, is a series of loosely linked, ostensibly autobiographical musings or accounts. The story proper, such as there is, begins with a young Miller working a series of dead-end day jobs. He finally manages to secure a long-term stint at what he calls the “Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America” (in all likelihood his bemused term for the Western Union Telegraph Company). He serves as a makeshift employment manager, hiring and firing at a rapid pace. He is swept into the system, and contemplates its crazed and inhumane logic (or lack thereof). He takes his first serious stab at writing around this time, when his boss casually mentions that he’d like to see a Horatio Alger-esque tale concerning the telegraph company. Miller describes his first book as terrible, but a necessary step on the way to becoming a writer.
He is married and has a child, but this doesn’t stop him from having an affair with a coworker named Valeska. Asked to look after the Millers’ child while the wife undergoes an abortion, Valeska and Henry make love surrounded by the dominos they had been using to entertain the kid just an hour before. Miller spends many of his nights carousing with his sex-hungry friend MacGregor. He also has befriended a seventeen year-old kid from Harlem named Curley who has no ethics and will steal from anybody, and who occasionally supplies Miller with spare change.
At this point in the novel, Miller dives back into his earlier past, culling through vivid childhood memories. He recalls accidentally killing a kid with a rock when he was playing with his cousin Gene one summer afternoon. No one found out he was involved in the act, and when he asked Gene about it twenty years later, even Gene seemed to have forgotten about it. Miller reflects on the clarity of childhood, how children seem to cut through to the essence of things, how his conversations at that age were models of lucidity and sanity compared to those of the adults, how something is suppressed and muffled inside us when we grow up. He then jumps forward a few years, to a time in his early twenties when he met a man named Roy Hamilton. Roy was searching for his biological father, but even in the midst of his familial confusion seemed surefooted, wise in profound ways, a rock in the middle of an ocean. He and Miller were good friends for a short period of time, and Miller recalls that time with great admiration for Hamilton, for he enabled Miller to know himself better.
The journey toward self-discovery continues, with Miller stumbling through the Southwest lost, alone, and in need of Hamilton (who has continued seeking his father). Miller thinks of his own father, a heavy drinker who routinely goes on the wagon, falls ill, and then throws himself headfirst into Christianity. After the minister who originally inspired his conversion leaves for a position in New Rochelle, Miller’s father falls into disillusionment and depression. Miller describes him as a man betrayed, before turning to the example of Grover Watrous, a neighbor who also found God, and remained the most “joyful” person Miller has ever known.
Miller transitions to his more current sexual exploits. He lists the women he has bedded: a “simpleton” who lives upstairs in his coworker Hymie’s place; Veronica, with her “talking cunt”; Evelyn, with her “laughing cunt.” Finally he lavishes dozens of pages on a nameless woman with whom he had an intense sexual relationship, a “plunder-bird” lady who wears only black and no underwear. She and Miller go to sleep at dawn and get up at dusk. They make love constantly. In between this running narrative of various women and sexual encounters, Miller describes two writers who profoundly marked him at this time in his life, when he was still developing as a reader and a writer: Dostoevsky and Henri Bergson.
Miller turns again to his childhood: he remembers taking piano lessons, coming on to his piano teacher and losing his virginity to her, and then in later years using his piano-playing as a way to attract women. More importantly, he writes of sensing a new world just beyond his reach when playing piano; the compositions that spring in his head seem to belong to a music of the future, an indefinable something to which he should aspire. A similar, but far more instantaneous and clear, revelation occurs when he is standing one day in a vaudeville theater and sees the curtains rise. He interprets this prelude to the spectacle as a metaphor for humanity, and sees in it the key to breaking through his creative block. He begins writing prolifically of a “New World” and tries to elevate writing to spiritual heights.
Miller remembers his sister, a “mental dwarf” who was beaten for her mistakes as a child, and whose pain he tried to share. He writes of the misunderstood artist, the misunderstood saint, but concludes that vicariously partaking in others’ tribulations deprives him of his own identity. He must continue on the path to greater self-awareness, for the self is, in a sense, everything. “Thought and action are one,” Miller argues, aligning thought with not just existence, as Descartes does, but with action – the physical, the real. The world might spring from a single stray thought, and thus to end his book Miller must “seek the end in [him]self.”