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Meet Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small American university. Jack has a wife named Babette (his fifth marriage) and the two of them live with their children from previous marriages. Jack also has a best friend at the university named Murray Siskind. Murray is a bit of a weirdo, but Jack finds him wise in an offbeat way.
One day, Murray asks Jack to come with him to check out a tourist trap called "The Most Photographed Barn in America." Surprise surprise—it turns out the barn is totally ordinary. But Murray teaches Jack an important lesson about the difference between reality and the things that people say about reality.
Jack and his family run into Murray all the time at their local supermarket. Murray loves to go around and smell everything in the store. He also loves to lecture Jack's entire family about the secret codes and systems of American advertising. Did we mention he's a bit weird?
One day, Jack glances out his window and sees a giant cloud of smoke billowing up from train yard near his home. His son Heinrich tells him that it's not just any smoke, but a ball of toxic gas that has been known to cause death in laboratory animals. Jack tells his son not to worry. But only moments later, the radio tells everyone in their town to evacuate their homes. During the evacuation, Jack accidentally exposes himself to the toxic gas. Later, he finds out that the exposure will kill him, though it's unclear when this will happen.
Just when the news can't get any worse, Jack finds out that his wife Babette has slept with another man. And that's not the worst of it. She slept with this other guy so she could score some drugs. It turns out that Babette is a pill-popper. When Jack presses her about what she's taking, she admits that she's using an experimental drug called Dylar that's supposed to take away her fear of death.
It turns out that throughout the entire book, Babette has had a crippling fear of death. So has Jack, for that matter. Jack demands to know who Babette's drug dealer is, but she won't tell. It's only by fluke that Jack finds out that the guy's name is Willie Mink and that he's staying in a nearby motel. After a short convo with his buddy Murray, Jack decides that the only way to overcome his own fear of death is to kill Willie Mink. That might seem a bit drastic. But hey, it makes the plot a whole lot more interesting.
Armed with a pistol, Jack drives to Mink's motel, shoots him in the gut, then puts the gun in Mink's hand to make the death look like a suicide. The only problem is that Mink isn't dead yet. The dude totally shoots Jack in the arm before collapsing. Jack realizes at the last second that he can't leave Mink to suffer and die. He drives Mink to a nearby hospital, where the guy recovers.
At the end of the book, Babette's baby son Wilder decides to take his big-wheel tricycle for a jaunt across a busy highway. He barely makes it over without dying. Jack uses this final story to muse about how little kids and adults have different attitudes toward death. And the happy American family watches a beautiful sunset. He adds at the last second that the sunset's incredible colors might actually be the side effects of the town's recent toxic disaster. How's that for modern American happiness?