An American Dream Summary
Here's the TL;DR version: Stephen Rojack kills his wife, sleeps with a lot of women, and manages to get off scot-free.
Easy enough, right?
Well, here's the more detailed version for you (but not the super detailed version—that's over in the detailed summary linked at left). After months of separation, Rojack is finally fed up with his marriage to Deborah Kelly, a wealthy heiress, so he ends up taking out this anger in the worst possible way, strangling her to death and framing it as a suicide.
Although the police are skeptical of Rojack's story, they eventually let him go. But the trip to the police department isn't a waste, because Rojack meets Cherry, a smoking hot blonde whom he falls in love with. After tussling with her ex-boyfriend, a famous musician named Shago Martin, Rojack leaves to meet with Barney Kelly—Deborah's father and one of the wealthiest men in the country.
There, Kelly makes a shocking revelation: He and Deborah had a brief (but totally incestuous) affair. After Rojack admits to killing Deborah, Kelly forces him to walk along his balcony's guardrail, thinking that Rojack will surely fall to his death. Rojack manages to survive this little tightrope walk, though, and gets away unscathed—but not before hitting Kelly in the face on his way out.
Rojack's spirits are high, but they're sent careening back to earth when he returns to find Cherry murdered. Utterly distraught, Rojack leaves New York, first for Las Vegas and then for Guatemala. If his imaginary conversation with Cherry's ghost is any indication, this guy is crazier than ever.
The Harbors of the Moon
- Our narrator is a big-time dude. For example, he once met John F. Kennedy in 1946 soon after they'd both "been elected to Congress" (1.1). In fact, these two men were on a double date.
- The narrator's date is Deborah Kelly, the daughter of a wealthy trucking magnate. Yes, the narrator sees dating her as a way to get to the top.
- Although the night goes well, Deborah calls the narrator the following day to tell him that she's moving back to a convent in London where she once lived. Naturally, these two end up married—but more on that later.
- Stephen Rojack (our narrator's name, finally) fought in World War II before becoming a congressman. His memory of killing "four very separate Germans" (1.3) haunts him to this day.
- Rojack joined the army after graduating from Harvard—smarty pants—and luckily for him, his bona fide smarts kept him away from most of the front-line fighting.
- One night, however, his squad is climbing a hill when they get pinned down by machine gun fire. Suddenly, the mild-mannered Rojack transforms into Rambo, tossing grenades like he's starring in The Expendables.
- To make a long story short, Rojack kills the German soldiers in a fairly gruesome way. He's wounded during the encounter and is sent home, earning a Distinguished Service Cross in the process.
- Although Rojack now walks with a limp, he leverages his story into C-Level celebrity status, which he in turn leverages to become a congressman. Easy as pie.
- These days, Rojack is a professor of "existential philosophy" (1.11) at a university in New York City. He also hosts some sort of television show, but he doesn't seem to want to talk much about it.
- Even though things seem rosy on the surface, Rojack is suicidal, and he and Deborah are now separated after eight years of marriage.
- At the moment, Rojack is standing on his friend's balcony after that night's rager has ended. He wonders if his friend's been hooking up with Deborah—after all, Rojack would (and has) done the same thing with his friends' wives.
- As he is chatting with his friend and remembering how uncertain Deborah's infidelities made him, Rojack vomits "over his balcony" (1.14).
- Rojack looks to see where his pukey "paint" has landed, and he finds it did not quite make it to ground level. Then he tells his friend to leave him, as he stares at the moon.
- Rojack hears a voice telling him to "come now" (1.19), so he starts climbing the railing, as if something is possessing him. Although the voice keeps telling him to jump, he eventually gets down and goes back inside.
- After a quick drink, he leaves—as he often does, Rojack feels compelled to visit Deborah. Although he hates her in many ways, he still see her as "leverage" (1.49) to reach the upper echelons of high society, a.k.a. the world of her father, Barney Oswald Kelly.
- Rojack stops at a phone booth and calls Deborah. She seems excited to see him, which Rojack interprets as a bad thing. What a marriage…
- Deborah has been staying at her friends' apartment for the time being. Her German maid, Ruta, politely greets Rojack when he enters the apartment (because apparently, when you are filthy rich, your maid accompanies you on extended stays in your friends' homes).
- It's immediately apparent that Deborah is as drunk as Rojack—which is a lot—and the two ex-lovers argue for a bit, with Deborah criticizing Rojack for not visiting Deirdre (her daughter from a previous husband) before she left for boarding school.
- They were going to have a child of their own, but Deborah "lost the baby" (1.105) after drinking too much during one of their more brutal fights. Presumably, that's when their relationship went sour.
- Rojack tells her that he loves her, and Deborah tells Rojack that she doesn't, which slays him.
- She continues, telling him about a bullfighter she was once passionately in love with. This hurts Rojack even more because he thought he knew about all of her past relationships.
- She rubs a bit more salt into the wound, graphically alluding to her current sexual relationships. Suddenly, Rojack loses his mind, attacking her and strangling her to death.
- Well, that certainly escalated quickly.
A Runner From the Gaming Room
- As a devout Catholic, Deborah has always hated that Rojack comes from a family of "Jewish Protestants" (2.8). In fact, she was always deeply concerned about losing her "grace" by living in sin with him.
- After getting lost in his memories for a bit—not to mention his odd, superstitious beliefs about God and the Devil—Rojack wakes up beside Deborah's body. He goes to the bathroom and washes himself off.
- Once he's finished, he checks her body again and leaves the room. Although Rojack doesn't quite know what he's doing, he enters Ruta's room.
- Ruta is lying in bed, doing naughty things to herself. (Lock that door next time, girl!) As if on cue, Rojack approaches her and they have sex. Suffice it to say that things get nasty.
- They lie in bed afterward, quite pleased with themselves. Ruta heard Rojack and Deborah's struggle, but assumed that they were making some sort of "reconciliation" (2.56), presumably of a sexual nature. Given what we've just seen of Ruta, we're not surprised she makes such an assumption.
- Rojack is somehow surprised to see Deborah's body when he returns to her room. After a brief cannibalistic fantasy (this dude is certifiably nuts), Rojack realizes what he must do.
- Slowly, he pulls Deborah's body to the "open window" (2.87)… You can probably guess what happens next: He throws her out.
- Once he's finished, he calls the police and says that there's been an awful accident.
A Messenger From the Maniac
- Rojack rushes from the room and tells Ruta that Deborah killed herself. Once again, however, Rojack is overcome with lust and has sex with Ruta in the hallway.
- After they finish, Rojack tells her that Deborah detected "a sniff" (3.22) of Ruta on Rojack, causing her to kill herself. (Have fun living with that guilt, Ruta.) He makes her promise to not tell the police about their relationship—if you can even call it that.
- Rojack heads outside. He finds Deborah's body in the middle of the road; her fall caused a multi-car accident and the police are already there.
- A detective named Roberts approaches Rojack while he's displaying some Oscar-worthy fake crying chops.
- As they chat, Rojack's attention is caught by an old man and "a young couple" (3.54) whose car must've been hit. He finds himself especially drawn to one half of that young couple—the sultry, blonde girl, of course.
- The girl notices him staring and walks over. Her name is Cherry. They chat and flirt for a bit, but her boy-toy Tony (an Italian fellow) pulls her away as soon as he notices.
- Roberts and Rojack get into a police cruiser and head back to Deborah's apartment—Roberts has a few questions for Rojack.
- Officer O'Brien is already there talking to Ruta when they arrive. After Ruta leaves the room to make coffee, the three dudes sit down and get to brass tacks.
- Rojack spews a convoluted explanation of how Deborah "jumped through the window" (3.91). He tells them that Deborah believed that she had cancer (although she was never diagnosed), which likely inspired her suicide.
- Suddenly, an officer named Lieutenant Leznicki barges into the room, accusing Rojack of killing Deborah. He claims that there's medical proof that she was strangled before falling from the window.
- The cops try to take Rojack to the precinct, but they're slowed down by a group of paparazzi and reporters, "their flashbulbs going off, their questions flying" (3.245).
- At the station, Roberts tells Rojack that he believes him, but knows that he slept with Ruta. Regardless, the autopsy will prove the truth.
- As Rojack sits, wondering if he should confess, he notices Cherry across the room, standing with Tony and the old dude from before. He also sees a black man, looking beaten up, talking to a cop at a desk.
- To Rojack's surprise, Leznicki enters the room. The lieutenant explains that the old man with Cherry is Eddie Ganucci—a major Mafioso crime boss. The NYPD has been trying to catch Ganucci for years, but never got a break until Deborah's fall sent him straight into their laps.
- Tony works for the mob, too—he runs "an after-hours spot" (3.310). Cherry is a singer there, in fact, having broken into the music biz by way of a famous singer named Shago Martin.
- As they sit in silence, Rojack hears the black man argue with the officer, claiming that he didn't commit the crime he's accused of. The man keeps asking for coffee, but the cop refuses until he agrees to sign some document.
- Leznicki still thinks that Rojack killed Deborah, however. He tries a few different methods of attack, but gives up and leaves after Rojack maintains his innocence.
- The cop is still arguing with the black fellow. The cop wants them to move to the back room, but the man refuses until the detective whispers something in his ear.
- Just as Rojack is about to crack and give a confession, he hears the man shouting from the other room. Apparently, he was promised booze but only given coffee. Curses.
- Then things get nasty: The cop starts beating the man so hard that Rojack can hear "the sound of a fist on a face" (3.354). Cherry must be hearing this, too, because she looks distraught.
- Rojack leaves the room and approaches Cherry. He calls over to Roberts, asking him to call off the beating—which he does. Rojack even manages to get the address of Cherry's nightclub before being dragged back to the interrogation room. What a sly devil.
- Surprisingly, Roberts tells Rojack that he's free to go since the autopsy revealed that Deborah actually had cancer. That's freaky.
- Rojack leaves the station, not quite knowing what to do. But then it hits him: He needs to visit Cherry at Tony's nightclub.
Green Circle of Exhaustion
- Rojack walks inside and sits at the bar. He's in a weird mental state right now, which is understandable given everything he's just been through.
- Cherry's on stage. She's an okay singer, but nothing to write home about. Rojack is floating on a "zephyr of drunkenness" (4.8), though, so he doesn't mind—instead, he kills time by telepathically attacking any guy in the crowd who seems smitten with Cherry. And no, we're not even joking.
- After turning his telepathic attack toward Cherry, Rojack rushes to the bathroom and pukes. Can't handle your liquor, dude?
- Cherry is just finishing up when he returns. He tries to buy her a drink, but she refuses, instead bringing him to a table where a group of people—mobsters, probably—are sitting.
- The leader of this group is "Romeo" Romalozzo, a "former prizefighter" (4.23) who clearly has the hots for our gal Cherry. Romeo goes off on a long tangent about a movie that's being made about his life, tossing out potential leading men to play his part.
- The ever-charming Rojack pipes in to pitch his own services as the lead actor. Romeo responds with a quick quip, and Rojack buys the table drinks.
- Although Romeo tries to get Rojack to leave, our not-so-humble anti-hero stands firm. Cherry seems impressed, so they leave and sit in a private table in the corner.
- They kiss—aw—but unfortunately, the bartender chooses this moment to tell Cherry that it's time for her to sing again. But this Cherry's gone sour, and she'd rather chill with her new bae than sing anything.
- As the band starts to play (minus a singer), Rojack gets a call at the bar from Roberts. Roberts is drunk and confusing, but he wants Rojack to meet him at the precinct at "five-thirty this afternoon" (4.182). He also informs Rojack that Deborah's dad is in town.
- Tony is at the table with Cherry when Rojack returns—he wants Cherry to sing. They exchange some tense words, until Rojack tells a joke that cracks her up. With that, she decides to sing one song.
- To everyone's surprise, that one song is a religious hymn. It also happens to be "the best song she had sung all night" (4.228). Tony doesn't think so, however, and he fires her as soon as she gets off the stage.
- Cherry goes to gather her things, leaving Tony and Rojack alone. Tony alludes to knowing Deborah; she used to visit another one of his clubs.
- Cherry and Rojack go to a coffee shop to relax—they've been out so long that it's already morning—and Cherry talks about her life and how her parents died when she was young, forcing her to live with her two older siblings.
- When they're finished, they decide to go to one of Cherry's apartments. Not her real apartment, because Tony will be watching, but her "special place" (4.286)… wherever that is.
A Catenary of Manners
- They take a cab to the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Cherry's apartment, which is in a large tenement building, mostly inhabited by Puerto Rican families.
- The apartment is, well, dirty. It's also filled with paintings. Cherry explains that her "sister used to live here" (5.4), but doesn't go into detail.
- Finally, Cherry reveals what happened to her sister: She was dating a bad dude—a pimp—who beat her, and after one especially bad incident, she committed suicide.
- Ominously, Cherry says that the man was "taken care of" (5.23). This is some Godfather-level stuff right here.
- It turns out that Cherry's sister was only dating the pimp because Cherry stole her old boyfriend, who was also the love of her life. How's that for sibling love? That guy was Shago Martin, the musician we mentioned earlier.
- Shago had tons of girlfriends, so Cherry's sister was just one of many. Cherry didn't like this arrangement and tried to distract Shago, if you catch our drift. It worked, but Cherry ended up simply picking up where her sister left off.
- Then, of course, Rojack and Cherry make love, but Rojack doesn't use protection. Is that a baby we see in your future, Mr. Rojack?
- They fall asleep. Rojack wakes up and realizes that he has to go home before meeting Roberts at the police station. He leaves Cherry a note before leaving, though, telling her that he'll "try to be here by tonight" (5.56).
- Although Rojack is head-over-heels for Cherry, he can't help but fantasize about Ruta—and getting drunk out of his mind—while riding home. He becomes so agitated by these thoughts that he needs to get out of the cab and walk.
- The phone is ringing off the hook at Casa Rojack. Rojack picks up—it's Arthur, "the producer of [his] television show" (5.81). Arthur acts concerned, but we can tell that he's a little suspicious of Rojack's involvement in Deborah's death.
- Although Rojack just wants to take a short break from filming, it's clear from the conversation that the show is being cancelled. And what's replacing it? Oh, just a little musical variety show… hosted by none other than Shago Martin.
- When they're finished, Rojack checks his messages. There's a call from Barney Oswald Kelly, Deborah's dad; Rojack is to meet him at the Waldorf Towers Hotel at seven thirty tonight.
- Just then, Rojack receives a call from Dr. Tharchman, the head of his Psychology Department. As you might imagine, the good doctor wants Rojack to "announce [his] bereavement and retirement […] for an indefinite period" (5.199). Before they hang up, Tharchman mentions that he's been interrogated by some powerful people, but not the police. Hmm….
- The phone rings once again, and this time it's Gigot, one of Deborah's friends. Gigot believes Rojack's story because she heard Deborah talk about suicide a lot.
- Interestingly, she also reveals that Ruta is Kelly's mistress, and that he requested that she live with Deborah. Although Gigot doesn't believe that Rojack killed Deborah, she's sure that she was murdered by someone.
- Why? Well, because "Deborah was a spy" (5.281), of course. Duh. Although Gigot doesn't have any evidence, she claims that Deborah once dated a man who worked for MI6. Close enough, right?
- Afterward, Rojack heads to the police station, where Roberts looks extremely hung-over.
- Roberts plays it tough, though, telling Rojack they have medical evidence that proves he killed Deborah so he should just confess now and get an easy deal for himself.
- Rojack argues with Roberts, claiming that he could find plenty of experts to dispute the official autopsy. Roberts keeps on coming up with more evidence, but a phone suddenly rings and he rushes out of the room.
- To Rojack's surprise, Roberts returns and tells him that he's free to go—it turns out that Rojack has some "big brother" (5.380) out there who ensured his release. Roberts asks Rojack if he is with CIA, which is pretty interesting after what Gigot just revealed. Pretty interesting indeed.
- Rojack leaves utterly confused. He receives a call saying that Mr. Kelly wants to meet at midnight now, so he hops in a cab toward Cherry's place.
- Naturally, they make love immediately.
A Vision in the Desert
- Afterward, they lie in bed and share a bottle of booze. Rojack talks about his television show, which began as an edgy piece of counter-culture but eventually devolved into a boring, run-of-the-mill talk show.
- Cherry starts cooking and talking about her own life. It's a rough story: She was sexually abused by her older brother from childhood, and this continued even after her parents' death. Although the whole town knew, everyone blamed her because her brother was a well-respected sheriff who's currently "running for State Legislature" (6.12). That there's some victim-blaming if we've ever seen it.
- Eventually, her brother moved out and Cherry's sister went a little mad. Cherry spent a lot of time wandering, getting into relationships with odd characters, like the rich businessman she met—and lived with—in Vegas.
- In fact, she got involved with the mob through that businessman. In time, Cherry became a little Mafioso herself, even putting out several hits on different men. She eventually realized that this was too much for her, though, so she moved to New York, where she met Shago.
- Cherry asks Rojack if he killed Deborah, and without hesitating, he says yes. He then explains that he needs to visit Deborah's father tonight.
- This clams Cherry up. She tells Rojack that Kelly was "the man […] in Vegas" (6.90). Holy smokes—this drives Rojack a little nuts.
- They talk about how they both believe that Cherry's pregnant. Although Cherry seems excited, she's saddened by the memory of an abortion she had while with Shago—in fact, Cherry's pregnancy is what shattered their relationship in the first place.
- Then Cherry drops a bombshell: Despite her sexually adventurous life, she never had an orgasm until meeting Rojack. Bizarrely, though, she's always had this belief that she will die as soon as that happens, so this might not be good news.
- Suddenly, the door opens: It's the one and only Shago Martin.
A Votive is Prepared
- Rojack has met Shago before. A while back, Deborah brought Rojack to one of his shows so she could get him to perform for a charity event, but Shago refused.
- In the present, Shago is standing in the doorway with an umbrella in his hand "taut as a sword in its case" (7.9), demanding that Rojack leave. Let's just hope that Shago isn't a spy, for Rojack's sake.
- When Rojack refuses, Shago pulls out a switchblade. The three of them argue until Shago breaks down in laughter and puts away his knife. Hilarious.
- Strangely, the two men shake hands and Shago seems in good spirits—but then Cherry says the wrong thing and that switchblade is right back out.
- Shago mocks Deborah to Rojack's face, pointing out the racist overtones of her charity request. He even claims that he and Cherry used to make fun of Rojack's television show all of the time.
- Shago offers Cherry a drink and she rejects it, which makes him realize that she's pregnant—or thinks she is, at least—and this flips his lid; he looks like "a big fish just speared" (7.41).
- Shago pushes Rojack and turns to walk away. Suddenly, Rojack loses it, attacking Shago with a frightening fury. Each time that Rojack thinks he has beaten Shago into oblivion, Shago talks some trash and Rojack keeps attacking.
- The fight ends after Rojack throws Shago down the stairs, leaving him in seriously rough shape. Rojack doesn't kill him, though, and instead he offers to hail Shago a cab when everything is said and done.
- Cherry is in a daze when Rojack returns. She talks about how she had such high aspirations for their relationship, but things went sour after they joined up with Civil Rights Movement. At some point, Shago "lost his dignity" (7.162) and never recovered.
- As for the little tussle that just transpired, the same exact thing happened when Cherry started dating Tony. Tony was terrified of Shago, though, and ran away scared—a sharp contrast to our boy Rojack.
- They talk about running off to Vegas, but the thought of meeting Kelly weighs heavily on Rojack's mind. Hesitantly, he hops in a cab and heads to the hotel, Shago's umbrella in hand.
- Throughout the whole ride, he feels a strange urge to change directions and head straight to Harlem. But why?
At the Lion and the Serpent
- Rojack arrives at the hotel. There's a huge commotion outside, apparently because "the First Lady" is there to "take a visiting princess out to a nightclub" (8.3). Fancy.
- He nervously makes his way into the building and rides the elevator to Mr. Kelly's floor, all the while still hearing the voice in his head telling him to go to Harlem.
- Kelly's door is opened by none other than Ruta. She looks done up to the nines, and to Rojack's surprise, she tells him that he should talk to Deirdre, Deborah's daughter, before meeting Kelly.
- Although Rojack is resistant, Ruta tricks him into going into Deidre's room. Rojack can immediately see that Deirdre "had grown since [he] had seen her last" (8.40).
- They talk about Deborah's death. The girl is still in shock, and she wants to move in with Rojack, but they both burst into tears after he tells her about Cherry. Before he leaves her room, he tells her that he's not going to attend Deborah's funeral.
- Ruta leads Rojack to Kelly's room. There are two people there, besides Kelly: Eddie Ganucci and "an old woman" (8.112) whom he recognizes but can't remember. Kelly passionately embraces Rojack.
- The woman is Bess, a "distant cousin of Deborah's mother" (8.117). She's a bit drunk and a bit upset—not the best combo. It's implied that she used to have a fling with old man Kelly. This guy gets around, huh?
- Ganucci is here paying his respects for Deborah's death. Bess is not a fan of this friendly neighborhood mobster, though, and mocks him the whole time.
- Out of nowhere, Kelly excuses himself from the room. Bess tries to take this opportunity to leave, too, but Ruta stops her.
- Upset by the whole spectacle, Rojack opens a window and walks out on the terrace. He feels compelled to "stand on the parapet" (8.181)—and so he does.
- He also feels compelled to jump off the edge, but decides against that one. Wise choice, buddy. Kelly is back by the time Rojack reenters the room.
- Bess and Ganucci decide to leave and Kelly walks them to the elevator, leaving Ruta and Rojack alone to make some awkward conversation.
- Rojack asks Ruta about Deborah's supposed spy-work. Ruta doesn't think much of it; she claims that Deborah simply dated a few spies and "pretended to be important" (8.236). She also alludes to knowing some secret information about Kelly that she'll use to get him to marry her.
- Kelly returns; he checked up on Deirdre after walking the two guests out. As if on cue, Ruta leaves the room.
- Rojack denies killing Deborah and explains that he won't be attending the funeral. Kelly demands that he does come, explaining that the "public show […] must be flawless" (8.323).
- Kelly leads Rojack into a ridiculously over-the-top library to tell him a story.
- Kelly grew up poor, and only built his trucking empire by stealing what little savings his family had. Like Rojack, he only married his wife (Leonora) because it was a wise business move—in fact, it was only then that he converted to Catholicism.
- Bess and Kelly's affair starts soon after Deborah's birth. Things get weird fast though—one night, Bess brings her daughter over along with some seriously creepy sexual vibes. This incident scares Kelly straight, and he comes clean to Leonora immediately afterward. She divorces him.
- Deborah comes to live with Kelly some years later when she's fifteen. He talks about standing up to some of her boyfriends and being "seductive" (8.388). Oh man, we hope this isn't going where we think it's going…
- One night, Deborah comes home late for dinner. Infuriated, Kelly rushes into her room and slaps her in the face. Then—to our utter horror—he kisses her on the mouth. He stops, but Deborah kisses him back.
- Kelly rushes back to his room, as homicidal and suicidal as Rojack has been throughout this whole novel; after this incident, he sends her to live in a convent.
- Rojack is utterly horrified. Kelly doesn't seem bothered, though, telling Rojack to go outside and "take a stroll around the parapet" (8.421). Rojack refuses.
- Finally, Kelly puts all his cards on the table, asking Rojack if he killed Deborah. Rojack tells the truth. The tension is thick.
- But then Rojack realizes something insane: that Kelly wants to have sex with him and Ruta right now. Things just go from weird to weirder in this book…
- Instead, though, Rojack walks out to the terrace, handing Shago's umbrella to Kelly as he climbs up the parapet.
- It's really windy out there, but Rojack somehow manages to walk all the way around. Suddenly, Kelly shoves the umbrella into Rojack's "ribs and gave a push" (8.461).
- Rojack manages to sidestep the blow and hops down to safety. Then he takes the umbrella from Kelly's hands and strikes him twice in the face before leaving.
- He rushes out of the building and hops in a cab to Cherry's place. Of course, he takes a quick stop at the bar before making it home, though.
- When he arrives, he's met with a horrible scene. Cherry is being carried on a stretcher to an ambulance, having been beaten by one of Shago's bros. Just as she predicted, she dies right there.
- Afterward, Rojack goes out to a bar with Roberts, the cop. Roberts just cries a bunch and talks about beating his wife. Yikes.
The Harbors of the Moon Again
- Rojack is driving out West. He meets an old army buddy in Missouri and watches him perform an autopsy—the smell of "the old man's odor" (E.2) lingers in his nose for days.
- He arrives in Las Vegas at the end of March. He believes that he has become slightly telepathic as a result of the whole ordeal.
- Finally, he decides to go stay with a friend in Guatemala. He has a strange, hallucinatory phone conversation with Cherry before leaving for this brave new world.