When our story begins, two deaf-mutes live in a Southern town and are total BFFs. That is, until one of them moves away to some sort of asylum, due to craziness. This causes some sad times for the one left behind, John Singer. Singer starts wandering the town and quickly becomes a fixture in the community. He draws the notice of four very different individuals: a teenage girl, an African-American doctor, an alcoholic socialist, and a taciturn diner owner.
Over the course of a year, huge changes impact these four people. The teenager loses her virginity and her hope for the future as her family faces dire poverty; the doctor loses his son to wrongful incarceration and loses his own health; the socialist loses his mind (repeatedly) and eventually his job; and the diner owner loses his wife and some of his inhibitions.
Singer becomes an anchor for these four. All are completely convinced that Singer fully understands them, when, in reality, Singer is as isolated and confused by life as they are. In the end, Singer's one friend dies, and Singer himself commits suicide. The four individuals who depended on Singer are left more alone than ever by the novel's end. Yeah, this one is far from an upper.