Stuart Cuno has decided to become good. Not believing in God, he invents his own methods, which include celibacy and the abandonment of a promising academic career. Interfering friends and relations question his sincerity, his sanity and his motives.
Stuart's stepbrother, Edward Baltram, is tormented by guilt, believing that he has killed his best friend. He dreams of both redemption and suicide. He is sent on a 'journey to the underworld' to find his natural father, the painter Jesse Baltram, whom he has not seen since childhood. He discovers a father strangely different from his expectations, full of the magic of forgiveness.
Meanwhile, Stuart's moral apprenticeship is causing nothing but trouble. Coming to, rescue Edward, Stuart provokes a final catastrophic clash of forces.