The narrator, Jack Gladney, describes the annual arrival of station wagons at his college, College-on-the-Hill. He walks into his quiet town of Blacksmith, where he lives with his wife, Babette, and their four children by previous marriages -- infant Wilder, Denise, Steffie, and Heinrich. He is the chairman and inventor of Hitler studies at the college.
Hitler studies shares a building with the popular culture department. Jack is friends with Murray Jay Siskind, a Jewish visiting lecturer on "living icons." Murray wants to do with Elvis Presley what Jack has done with Hitler. Jack accompanies Murray to the country to "the most photographed barn in America."
Jack goes to the high school stadium and watches Babette run up and down the steps. He says the question of who will die first sometimes arises in their conversation. The family orders Chinese food that Friday night and unhappily watches television together, a family ritual.
Jack drives Heinrich to school and they debate the rain; Heinrich informs him that the radio said it was going to rain tonight, while Jack points out that it is already raining, and that they don't need to believe the radio over their own senses. Jack lectures his class on the mass appeal of fascism. He discusses "plots" -- political, narrative, etc. -- and says that all plots move "deathward."
In bed, Jack and Babette discuss what to do sexually. They finally decide that Babette will read him erotic literature. Jack says that he and Babette tell each other everything, except about fear of death. Looking for pornography, Jack finds old photo albums instead, and he and Babette pore over them for hours.
Jack's numerous attempts to learn German have failed, but he has begun secret lessons (to prepare for hosting a major Hitler conference in the spring) with a man named Dunlop who lives in Murray's boarding house.
Jack says that the grade school had to be evacuated and inspected for dangerous materials, as students were beset by a variety of health problems. Steffie tells Jack that Denise reads the Physicians' Desk Reference to find out the side effects of Babette's medication. Jack asks her what medication this is, and Steffie tells him to ask Denise.
In the supermarket, Murray tells Babette that the Tibetans believe in a transitional state between death and rebirth that recharges the soul, and he thinks the supermarket does this in American culture. Tibetans see death as the end of attachments to things, he says, which is a hard thing for people to do, since they want to deny death. Murray invites the family to dinner next weekend.
In the kitchen, Denise refers to Babette's failing memory, but quickly drops the discussion. Jack finds Heinrich strategizing chess moves in his room; he plays with a convicted murderer by mail. That night, Jack and Babette have dinner at Murray's. After dinner, the talk turns to television, and Murray says he's been taking notes on television for the past few months. He has concluded that the "waves and radiation" of television have become a "primal force" in the home. On the walk home, Jack suggests Babette is taking medication. Babette says isn't, or at least she doesn't remember taking anything.
Jack describes his awkward German lessons with Dunlop. Bob Pardee, Denise's father and a businessman, takes the kids out to dinner, and Jack drives Babette to Mr. Treadwell, the blind man to whom she reads tabloids. At his house, Babette says she can't find him, and the neighbors and police provide no help, either. The next day, the authorities search the river for Mr. Treadwell.
Mr. Treadwell and his sister are found in an abandoned cookie shack in a mall. The previous day, the police had enlisted the aid of a psychic. Her tips led them to a gun and a supply of raw drugs. The psychic had previously led the police to a number of other intriguing finds, although each time the police had been looking for something else.
Denise tells Jack she's worried about Babette's memory. She knows she's taking medication because she saw a prescribed bottle of a medicine called "Dylar" in the trash, but her drug reference book doesn't list Dylar. Heinrich comes in and tells them there's footage of a plane crash on TV. That Friday night, the family attentively watches TV news of natural disasters.
Murray tells Jack he is having problems securing his Elvis Presley studies, and Jack promises to visit his next lecture to lend him some validity. At lunch, the men in the popular culture department ask a series of personal trivia questions related to pop culture.
In Murray's lecture, he and Jack trade nuanced observations on Elvis's and Hitler's similar relationships with their mothers. Jack speaks at length about Hitler's relationship with crowds, and argues that crowds are a way to keep out death, and that to break away from the crowd is to face death alone.
Wilder cries incessantly all day, and nothing they do makes him stop. When they take him to the doctor, they receive the same advice Denise gave. Jack drives Babette to her class at church. As Jack sits with the wailing Wilder in the car, he gives in to the crying, letting it "wash over" him. He drives and lets Wilder steer. On the way home with Babette, the crying stops suddenly.
On the way to the mall, Denise asks Babette what she knows about Dylar, but Babette manages to change the conversation, leading to a series of factually incorrect statements. At the hardware store, Jack runs into a computer teacher at the college who tells Jack that he looks "harmless" and "indistinct" without his collegiate uniform of a dark robe and dark glasses. Jack goes on a spending spree in the mall. After a while, they drive home in silence.
Jack drives to the airport outside of Iron City to pick up his 12-year-old daughter Bee. Instead, he finds Tweedy Browner, her mother, who says that Bee is coming in later. Tweedy, frustrated by her marriage, confesses that she thought Jack would love her forever. Before Bee's flight is scheduled to arrive, other passengers file out. Jack finds out from a passenger that the plane had lost power, making everyone believe they were going to crash. Then the power went back on in the plane. Bee arrives and is disappointed that they "went through all that for nothing," as there's no media in Iron City.
Jack says the sophisticated Bee makes the family feel self-conscious. Bee discusses her mother's problems with Malcolm, Tweedy's own identity problems, and Babette's virtues. Jack later drives her to the airport, and on the way back visits a quiet cemetery. He reads the tombstones. He feels the dead have a presence.
Jack relates a series of deaths from the obituaries, including that of Mr. Treadwell's sister. He compares his age to the ages of the deceased. Babette tells Jack that she wants to die first, as she'd be lonely without him. Jack says the same thing about himself. Murray visits for his study of children, and he watches TV and talks with the kids. Jack admits to himself that, in truth, he would choose loneliness over death. Jack joins the kids and Murray and sees Babette's face on the TV. They are all shocked and confused. They soon realize she is being interviewed about her adult education class. Wilder touches the screen and later cries by the TV.
A tank car has had an accident, and there is a heavy black cloud of smoke above it. Heinrich says the radio has defined the toxic chemical as Nyodene D. It is soon called an "airborne toxic event." Air-raid sirens and a warning to evacuate makes the family follow the herd of cars out of town. Jack thinks he sees Babette slip something in her mouth and swallow it. When he confronts her, she says it's a Life Saver. Heinrich warns them that they're running out of gas. They see an abandoned gas station, and Jack jumps out, shielding his head under his coat, and refills the tank.
They reach an abandoned Boy Scout camp. Inside the barracks, various rumors and information circulate in small crowds. Jack reaches one crowd, where he finds Heinrich lecturing the people on the chemical properties of Nyodene D. Jack brings up his doubt over Babette's "Life Saver," and she insists it was true. A Jehovah's witness family comes over and tells Jack of the apocalypse.
Denise overhears a woman discussing exposure to toxic agents, and she tells Jack that he was exposed when he got out of the car to refill the gas. Jack tells about his exposure and other personal information to a man who wears the word "SIMUVAC" on his jacket. "SIMUVAC" stands for "simulated evacuation," a new state program. Even though this is a real evacuation, the man tells him, they decided to use it as a model for the simulated evacuations. The man tells him that his computer has processed Jack's data and has given a warning. He tells Jack not to worry about it, and to live his life.
Babette reads tabloids to Treadwell and other blind people. Jack joins their group. She reads an article about proof, through hypnosis, of reincarnation. Jack goes outside, where a few groups of people stand around fires. He finds Murray talking to a carload of prostitutes. Jack confides to him about his exposure to Nyodene D. Murray philosophizes on death. Jack soon returns to the barracks and sleeps with his family. Everyone wakes up and leaves when they are told the cloud is heading in their direction. The family heads to Iron City, where they end up in an abandoned karate studio. Nine days later, everyone is allowed to return home.
Jack resolves not to tell Babette about the dangers of his Nyodene D exposure. He increases the length of his German lessons. Mylex-suited men patrol the town. Heinrich believes there is still a great quantity of Nyodene D present in the town, though they are told there are only trace amounts, but the real issue is the daily low-dosage radiation people encounter -- from microwaves, power lines, etc.
Jack discovers Babette's bottle of Dylar inside the bathroom radiator and shows it to Denise. They decide not to say anything to Babette. Denise informs him that further research has yielded no clues as to what Dylar is. Heinrich tells Jack that his friend Mercator is training to break the world endurance record for sitting in a cage of poisonous snakes.
Jack takes a tablet of Dylar to a neurochemist at the college, Winnie Richards. At home, Jack tells Babette that he found the Dylar, but she denies knowing what it is. He revisits Winnie, who tells him that the Dylar is a "drug delivery system"; it gradually releases medicine to the brain through a small hole in the tablet. She doesn't know what the chemical components are or what it does, though.
In bed, Jack orders Babette to tell him about Dylar. She tells him that about a year and a half ago, she developed a mental condition that wouldn't go away. One day, while reading a tabloid to Treadwell, she saw an ad asking for volunteers for secret research. She was selected as one of the people to take the experimental drug Dylar. The potential side effects are dangerous, and the firm eventually decided it was too risky to let anyone try it, but Babette and Mr. Gray -- the fake name she gives the project manager -- made a private arrangement. In return for sex in a motel room over several months, he would give her the drug.
Babette won't tell Jack more about Mr. Gray. Babette reveals what Dylar aims to relieve: fear of death. Jack confesses that he is also obsessed with death, but he never told her to protect her. Babette says the Dylar isn't working, however. Jack confides that to her about his forecasted death from Nyodene D. After Babette falls asleep, he looks inside the bathroom radiator: the bottle of Dylar is gone.
Jack has a medical checkup which reveals nothing about his impending death. On the way back to the supermarket, he runs into SIMUVAC-in-progress -- a simulated evacuation, complete with emergency vehicles and volunteer victims, one of whom is Steffie. At home, Heinrich, who is part of the evacuation, is with Orest Mercator. Jack asks him why he wants to sit in a cage of poisonous snakes, and they debate the possibility of death. Jack goes inside and asks Babette where the Dylar is, and she says she didn't move them. She also suggests he wants to take them, and he promises he doesn't. He wants to know who Mr. Gray is, but she has promised not to reveal his identity to anyone. Jack tells Denise the Dylar is to improve Babette's memory. She says he's lying. Jack says he knows Denise took the tablets from the radiator. She'll only return it when she finds out what Dylar does. Jack fantasizes about the effects of Dylar on him.
Jack wakes up Babette in the middle of the night; he wants to talk to Mr. Gray. She refuses, since she believes he wants to ingest Dylar and possibly kill Mr. Gray. He says he wants only to see if he qualifies for Dylan and that he's over their sexual trysts. She says she won't allow Jack to make the same mistake with Dylar she made. Jack talks with Winnie Richards the next day. Jack tells her what he's learned about Dylar. She believes we need to fear death, as it gives life a "'boundary.'" She tells him to forget about Dylar and to continue with his life. Jack takes Heinrich to watch as the insane asylum burns down. The acrid smell of burning artificial substances disperses the crowd. At night, Jack stays up thinking about Mr. Gray.
Vernon Dickey, Babette's handyman father, unexpectedly visits and hangs around for several days. One night, Jack goes into Denise's room and roots around for the Dylar bottle. She wakes up and says she knows what he's looking for; he says he needs the Dylar to solve a personal problem. He eventually tells her about the medicinal properties of Dylar. Denise tells him that she threw out the Dylar a week ago, fearing Babette would find it. Jack says he's grateful to her. Vernon brings Jack out to the car and gives him a handgun. Jack doesn't want it, but Vernon is persistent. The next day, Vernon leaves, and Babette cries at his departure.
Jack roots through the garbage but cannot locate the Dylar. He has another checkup. His doctor tells him his potassium is very high, but won't tell him what that means and refers him to a medical center in a nearby town.
Jack tells Babette that Denise threw out the pills. Babette says she hopes this is the end of Jack's fixation on Mr. Gray, as she will never help Jack locate him. The next day, a simulated evacuation takes place for noxious odor. Three days later, a real noxious odor temporarily drifts over the town.
The Hitler conference begins at the college. Jack takes further medical tests at the place his doctor recommended. A doctor tells Jack he has traces of Nyodene D in his bloodstream which can cause death. The doctor gives Jack a sealed envelope which he should show to his doctor.
Jack and Murray discuss death. Murray says Jack can put his faith in technology to revive his body, or he can study the afterlife and take solace from the idea of its existence. Murray says there are two kinds of people, killers and "diers." Most people are "diers," but the killers, by ending someone's life, somehow gain a "life-credit." He believes plotting is an attempt to affirm and control life.
Jack starts bringing his gun to school. Heinrich tells Jack that no one would let Orest do his snake test, so he had been forced to go to a hotel room in a nearby town, where the snakes bit him within a few minutes. Orest has since gone into hiding. Winnie Richards tells Jack she saw an article about the group that manufactured Dylar. She relates what Jack mostly already knows -- that Willie Mink ("Mr. Gray") had a sexual liaison with a woman in a ski mask at a motel in return for Dylar. Mink still lives in the motel, in the Germantown section of Iron City. Jack takes his neighbors' car -- they keep the key in the ignition in case of emergency -- and drives to Iron City.
Jack finds Willie Mink in the motel room, half-insane. Jack has an elaborate plan which involves shooting Mink three times. Jack remembers Babette's warning of the side effects of Dylar -- that one can confuse language with reality. Jack exploits this and scares Mink with words. He fires twice and hits Mink's stomach. He puts the gun in Mink's hand to make it look like a suicide. Mink shoots and hits Jack's wrist. Jack feels a sense of compassion for Mink. He drags the bloody Mink to the car and gives him mouth-to-mouth respiration, then tells Mink he shot himself.
Jack drives around for a hospital with Mink. They arrive at a clinic run by German-speaking nuns, who tend to Mink. Jack asks one of them what the Church believes heaven looks like. She tells him the nuns don't believe in heaven. The world would collapse, she says, if they didn't pretend to believe, for the nonbelievers require believers. Jack finds out Mink won't die. He drives home and leaves the blood-stained car in the neighbors' driveway.
Wilder rides his tricycle across the busy highway one day, not paying attention the cars. Jack describes how he, Babette, and Wilder frequently go to the overpass to watch the sunset with many other observers. He says the Mylex-suited men still patrol the area. Jack's doctor wants to discuss his impending death, but Jack is avoiding him, and taking no calls. One day, shoppers find that the supermarket shelves have been rearranged. Jack says it doesn't matter, as the terminals have scanners which decode every item. He believes this "language of waves and radiation" is "how the dead speak to the living." Waiting on line together, people have the chance to browse the tabloids, where we can read about "The cults of the famous and the dead."