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This book begins with a man in blue wings. A man in blue wings jumps off of a white hospital, and is watched by a predominantly black audience below. Step into our handy dandy time machine (which you won’t be able to live without in this novel), and fast forward four years.
Bienvenue, Bienvenidos, Dobro Došli, Tervetuloa, Welcome to the world of the Deads. Before you go running and screaming, the Deads are the family that live in the big house on Not Doctor Street, and their world is kind of, well, dead. OK, not really, but the patriarch, Macon Dead, hates his wife, his children, and pretty much the world. No one in the dead house is allowed to do much of anything except make fake roses, take baths, pee on each other, and eat sunshine cake that sticks to the roof of your mouth. Oh, and breast feed.
In comes our protagonist, Macon Dead, Jr., right on cue. Though the ripe age of four years old, Macon Jr. is still breast-fed by his mother. That is, until the town crier catches them at it. Macon Jr. becomes forevermore known as Milkman. Hehe.
Fast-forward eight years, Milkman learns how to transform a limp into a brilliant strut. In addition to trying to get beers at the local pool hall and being lectured by the local barbershop owner, Milkman and his best friend, Guitar, decide to be the devious adolescent boys that they are. They visit the local bootlegger, not to get wine, but to meet Pilate Dead, Milkman’s mysterious aunt. While at Pilate’s the boys have an incredible time asking about her lack of belly button, learning how to make the most perfect soft boiled egg, pulling berries off of brambles, and falling in love with the behind of Pilate’s seventeen-year-old granddaughter, Hagar.
Put the time machine on cruise control now, and watch the scenery. See here that Hagar and Milkman start getting it on a few years later. Now zoom back to Pilate and Macon Dead, Sr.’s youth living in Danville, Pennsylvania. Notice the ghost, the cave, the gold, the happy farm, the midwife, and the scary mansion. Fast forward to Milkman’s early 20s and watch as Milkman hits his father after his father hits his mother over a nice Sunday dinner. Then watch Milkman’s horror as his father tells him his mom once sucked the fingers of her dead father.
Put the time machine into turbo gear, and stop at Milkman’s 31st year. Milkman breaks up with Hagar, who goes crazy and tries to kill him once a month for the next six months. Guitar stops drinking, smoking, and talking about girls, and Milkman is seriously concerned only to discover that Guitar is part of a secret society called the Seven Days which, whenever a black person is killed, reciprocates the murder by killing a white person in the exact same way. It’s a super secret society, and Guitar is totally into it.
Milkman is freaked out. Mostly because he’s realizing he doesn’t know what he wants in life or who he is. He works for his daddy, his best friend is a murderer, his mom sucked the fingers of her dead father, his sisters hate him, and his ex-girlfriend wants him dead.
Then, just as Milkman is about to peace out and leave his oddball family, Macon Sr. gets the hair-brained idea to steal the green bag swinging from Pilate’s ceiling, a green bag holding what he assumes to be real solid gold. Flashback time to the cave again, and discover that, in that cave, a little Macon, Sr. and a little Pilate killed a man and found lots and lots of gold. But not just any gold. Gold in a green bag that looks exactly like the one in Pilate’s house.
Macon, Sr. tells his son to go steal it so that they can split it and live happily ever after. Not wanting to leave his best friend out, Milkman tells Guitar about the scheme and Guitar is totally stoked (he needs money in order to fund a really tricky murder). The two men steal Pilate’s green bag only to find that it’s a pile of bones and not gold. Ruh-roh.
To make it worse, the police catch them and arrest them. Macon has to bail them out, and Pilate has to testify in order to explain why she has a pile of bones hanging from her ceiling. Guitar is seriously tripping out. He hates Pilate. He needs the money. Macon tells Milkman that if Pilate doesn’t have the money, it must still be in the cave. Aha!
Milkman heads out to find this cave everyone keeps talking about. He tells Guitar he’ll bring back the bacon, and (a plane ride and a Greyhound bus trip later) arrives in Danville, Pennsylvania with nary a plan in sight. He meets up with a reverend who used to know his dad and his aunt, then finds his way to the woman who birthed both Macon and Pilate. The old woman gives Milkman directions to the cave, which he follows, only to discover that he’s not really dressed for hiking through the Pennsylvanian wilderness, and, more importantly, thatthere is no gold. Milkman hitches a ride back to town, eats a mountain of cheeseburgers, helps a man lift a crate, and catches a bus to Virginia, because why not go to Virginia? When it doubt, go to Virginia.
He arrives in Virginia buys a car, and goes to a town called Shalimar, where he thinks some of his family may have once lived. In Shalimar, Milkman acts like a big dork, because no one has ever taught him how to interact with strangers. He gets his butt kicked after insulting the locals, and is invited to go bobcat hunting in the Blue Ridge Mountains in the middle of the night, which he gladly does because, when in Rome, you go bobcat hunting. Again, he’s having trouble with the whole nature thing. Just when he vows to make a cardio workout part of his everyday lifestyle, Guitar shows up out of literally nowhere (well, the Blue Ridge wilderness that is) and tries to strangle him.
Just when he’s about to bite the dust, Milkman realizes he has a gun. He points it at Guitar and misses, but scares him. Guitar disappears, but Milkman knows he’s around watching him. After skinning and gutting a bobcat, the hunting party tells Milkman where he can find a good place to stay and also where he might be able to find out more about his roots.
Milkman meets up with Sweet, a lady of the night, who lives in a cute little cottage just down the road. They take baths and get busy. Milkman visits Ms. Byrd the next day, the lady who knows about his roots, but she doesn’t know too much, only that his grandmother may have been Native American. Mrs. Byrd is not very helpful, and her flirtatious schoolteacher friend is only interested in turning the gossip mill and in stealing Milkman’s watch.
On his way back to Sweet’s, Milkman runs into Guitar. Fancy that. Guitar saw Milkman helping with the crate in Danville, and suspected Milkman of hiding the gold instead of sharing it with him. Protest as he might, Milkman knows his friend is crazy and won’t believe any story his spins. The next day, Milkman gets ready to take off, but on his way he listens to a song the children are singing, which he realizes is about his family. Eureka!
Then we move back to the city by Lake Superior where Hagar is still going crazy over the breakup with Milkman. She gets the idea that Milkman hates her because she isn’t pretty enough, so she makes her mom sell her diamond ring, and uses the money to buy clothes, lingerie, and makeup. She’s so worked up that she gets caught in the rain and unknowingly keeps walking in it. When she returns home, she does a fashion show for her mom and grandmother, but flips out when she realizes all of her new things are ruined from the rain. She catches a fever and dies soon after, sending her grandmother into mourning.
Meanwhile, Milkman goes back to Ms. Byrd’s house. He finds her alone and willing to chat, and gets more concrete details out of her about his grandmother, Sing, and his grandfather, Jake, who ran away together on a wagon going North right after the Civil War. Ms. Byrd confirms that the song that he heard the little kids singing is indeed about his family.
The Milkman is THRILLED. Thrilled enough to go skinny dipping, which he does promptly thereafter. With the richness of this news, Milkman rushes home to the city by Lake Superior. He runs straight to Pilate’s house to tell her everything he’s learned about their family, only to have her break a bottle over his head and lock him in the cellar for being the cause of Hagar’s madness.
Eventually, Pilate is warmed by the news of the family tree, and Milkman drives her back to Shalimar. There they bury her daddy’s bones in the Blue Ridge Mountains, only to have Guitar shoot Pilate. Devastated, Milkman calls out to Guitar before jumping into oblivion, which, the last lines tell us, really means that he learns how to fly.