Milkman’s left leg is shorter than his right leg, he earned his nickname because his mother breast fed him far too long, and his dad is the ogre-y landlord that likes to put people out on the street when they don’t pay rent on time. It’s no wonder the poor boy was stuffed into his locker, laughed at, and given wedgies throughout his young life.
Meeting and making friends with Guitar truly saves his little Dead butt. Between Guitar and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Milkman finds what we call mentors, who teach him how to do such things as walk, find beer, and pick up the ladies. He makes that limp into a s-t-r-u-t. Watch out America’s Next Top model, Milkman can outcatwalk you all. Not only that, but boy can he dance, and it is that stiff-legged dance that makes the girls go crazy. Pretty soon, Milkman has no problem getting girls.
Milkman also has dough. He works for his dad, running around town collecting rents, closing up shop at night, and drinking whiskey out of a bottle stashed in the office toilet. Things just happen for Milkman. For example, when he gets home late after being arrested for stealing a bag of human bones, he finds a fan at the foot of his bed that somebody brought him so that he could sleep more comfortably. He has his own bathtub and drives his dad’s car around all over town. He also spends lots of time at Honoré Island, hanging out with other affluent black families. Whenever there’s a party, Milkman’s the guy to get the booze. And wouldn’t you know he has an aunt who doesn’t have a belly button? But more importantly, this aunt is a bootlegger. Milkman has the hook up.
It is in this very same bootlegger’s humble abode that Milkman experiences one of the happiest moments of his life. He’s only thirteen years old, and he’s hanging out with his aunt for the first time ever. Guitar is with him, and the boys are picking berries off of brambles with Pilate, her daughter Reba, and Reba’s daughter, Hagar, who happens to have the nicest behind on Darling Street. Yup, Milkman develops a mad crush on Hagar.
But good times do not last. Milkman has a blissful adolescence, but only really arrives at the growing up part when he is the ripe age of 31. He wakes up one day and realizes he still works for his dad, still is taken care of by his mom and sisters, and still sleeps with Hagar. Of course, he remains the life of the party and has many girlfriends besides Hagar, but still, there must be more to life. His best friend has a cause, a goal, a belief he can get behind. The point, he tells us, is that he does not have meaning in his life.
Not only that, but everyone seems to want something from him. His mom needs him around to remind herself of the last time she had sex. His dad needs him to collect rents so that his business seems more dignified. Hagar needs him to make her feel safe. Everybody wants a piece of Milkman, but he doesn’t even know of what pieces he’s built.
In fact, who is Milkman? What does he care about? He’s our protagonist. We’re supposed to know these things. But we don’t. And neither does he. OK, let’s find him something to care about. Hmm. Let’s see. Gold! That’s as good a purpose as there ever was. With money, Milkman believes he can run far, far away from his family and live independently. So, after a failed attempt to burglarize his beloved aunt, he takes his gold watch, his three-piece suit, and his expensive shoes and goes to claim what is rightly his (kind of, not really).
By the time he’s lying spread eagle on the bottom of a cave, covered in bat poop and looking at the place where his purpose should be, Milkman’s begun to develop an interest in something other than his three-piece suit and his gold watch. He shows up in a random town in the Middle of Nowhere, PA, and people know his "people."
People? Milkman has people? This is intriguing. So intriguing that it’s worth trekking through the Blue Ridge Mountains for. It’s worth stumbling in darkness to find a bobcat for. It’s worth getting into a knife fight for in a town that isn’t even listed on a AAA map. It’s worth ruining his shoes and his three-piece suit, and losing his watch for.
Even though his dad has always told him that owning things and letting those things own other things is the smartest thing he could ever do, Milkman can’t help but feel pretty happy when he returns home to the Dead house with only a box of his ex-girlfriend’s hair and a nursery rhyme in his head. When he flies off of a rock after realizing that his newly dead aunt defies all laws of human nature, we don’t know where he goes. But we know the man is very different from the boy with the limp, who always seemed to be going in the opposite direction of everyone else.