The narrator of the first chapter, Artie Jennings, explains that dead people are restless and never stop talking. Jennings was killed by being pushed over the balcony at the Sunset Beach Hotel in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The next chapter is set on December 2, 1976, and is told through the perspective of fourteen-year-old Bam-Bam. Bam-Bam’s mother is a prostitute, and the Kingston ghetto where they live, Copenhagen City, is governed by violence and “madness.” Bam-Bam witnesses the killing of both his parents by a man named Funnyboy, and only escapes death himself by hiding underneath his mother’s dead body.
The next chapter is narrated by an American called Barry Diflorio, who travels between different countries working for “the Company” (the CIA) and is currently stationed in Jamaica. Diflorio mentions an unnamed reggae singer who has become famous across the world. The next chapter is narrated by Nina Burgess, a light-skinned Jamaican woman whose family home is robbed. Nina recalls her relationship with a white American named Danny.
The next chapter returns to the perspective of Bam-Bam, who explains that a Syrian man brings guns to the ghetto and teaches him how to use them. Bam-Bam is close with a gangster don named Papa-Lo, who one day viciously beats and almost kills him for robbing a woman at gunpoint. Bam-Bam explains that in the 1960s the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) was in power, followed by the People’s National Party (PNP), but now the JLP wants power back. Bam-Bam compares Papa-Lo, who is a meticulous planner, to another top gangster on the same gang, Josey Wales, who behaves in a spontaneous and erratic way. Josey asks Bam-Bam if he is ready to be a man and leads him to a shack where a boy is tied up naked. Josey gives Bam-Bam a gun and Bam-Bam kills the boy.
In the next chapter, Josey expresses his disdain for Rastafarians. Josey is faithful to his girlfriend, Winifred, because he hasn’t found anyone more beautiful than her in ten years. He meets up with a man named Louis Johnson from the American embassy, who tells him that the Singer has been giving money to Papa-Lo. Josey knows that the Americans will try to assassinate him, and plans to preemptively “take care of a few people” in order to protect himself. The next chapter is narrated by Nina, who claims that the Singer’s song “Midnight Ravers” was written about her. She goes to the Singer’s house and tells his security guards that she is pregnant with the Singer’s child, hoping to get money for an American visa, but they dismiss her. A white American named Alex Pierce, who is a writer for Rolling Stone, also tries to see the Singer and fails.
In the next chapter, a young man from the “Jungle” neighborhood, Demus, describes being approached by Josey, who gives him a gun and cocaine in exchange for killing some people. Demus is happy to do so until he hears that Josey wants him to kill the Singer. Papa-Lo sends his men out to knock on doors in the ghetto and pressure people into voting for the JLP in the upcoming election. Bam-Bam explains that the whole country is waiting on the Smile Jamaica concert at which the Singer will play, even though people know it’s “PNP propaganda.”
Nina gets stopped by the police, who scold her for being out past the curfew and force her to get into their car. She is sure they are going to rape her and tells them to get it over with already, but the officers are so shocked by this that they just take her home. Meanwhile Josey meets with a Cuban nicknamed Doctor Love, who blows up two cars in front of him. Doctor Love learned to make explosives from the CIA and tried to assassinate Che Guevara four times. At the same time, Barry Diflorio is preparing to publically revoke the Singer’s American visa on suspicion of drug trafficking.
Papa-Lo knows that Josey is planning something that he thinks Papa-Lo doesn’t “have the gumption to do,” and admits that Josey is right. Soon after, Josey and Doctor Love set off a bomb in Trench Town. Soldiers descend on Copenhagen City and arrest Papa-Lo along with Josey, Weeper (another killer in the same gang), and others, who are kept in jail for three days. While they are locked up, Doctor Love sets off another two bombs in Elysium Gardens.
Alex Pierce is fired by his boss at Rolling Stone, and afterward has a drink with Mark Lansing, who offers Alex access to the Singer in exchange for taking a suitcase of documentary footage back to the US for him. Nina’s sister Kimmy tells their parents that Nina had sex with the Singer, but Nina doesn’t tell them that Kimmy did too. When Nina’s father tries to beat her with a leather belt, she grabs the belt from him and beats him instead.
Barry Diflorio follows Louis Johnson into the ghetto, but Johnson causes Diflorio to crash his car. Mark drops Alex at the Singer’s house, but when he arrives Alex has a bad feeling and freaks out, noticing that the guards who are supposed to be standing outside are gone. He leaves.
In the ghetto, Demus, Weeper, Bam-Bam, and others wake up and immediately start doing lines of cocaine while Josey opens a box of M16 rifles. On Josey’s cue, the men get into two white Datsuns, drive to the Singer’s house, and shoot everyone inside. As they are leaving, Bam-Bam sees Nina calmly walking into the house, not realizing that she is walking into “hell.”
Afterward, back in Copenhagen City, Demus is shot at by Josey, Tony Pavarotti, and two other men he doesn’t recognize. Demus escapes and hears on the radio that the Singer was not killed—he was treated at the hospital and sent home. Demus runs until he finds himself surrounded by eight Rastamen dressed in white. Bam-Bam is kidnapped and buried alive by Josey, Tony, and Weeper.
The narrative jumps forward to February 15th, 1979, and to the perspective of Kim Clarke (later revealed to be Nina), a Jamaican woman living in Montego Bay with her white American boyfriend, Chuck. Chuck tells her that after 30 years, the CIA is leaving Jamaica. Kim hopes that when Chuck returns to America, he will marry her and take her with him. However, Chuck refuses, saying that he already has a wife. Furious, Kim shuts herself in the bedroom, sets a newspaper on fire with a cigarette, and puts it on the bed.
Barry Diflorio and his family are moving to Argentina. Papa-Lo recalls his time in jail, where he was beaten by police in revenge for the violence he perpetrated in the ghetto. He notes that the Singer came back after the events of December 1976, but now sleeps “with one eye open.” Papa-Lo kills several men and as he is driving away is stopped by the police, who shoot him with his own gun.
Alex, who is in a drug-fueled haze in a hotel in New York City, describes a peace treaty that was signed by Papa-Lo, Shotta Sheriff, and others. The peace did not last. There is a strange man in the hotel room, who––unbeknownst to Alex––is Tony Pavarotti. They end up wrestling, and Alex stabs Tony to death with a letter-opener.
Josey warns Peter Nasser (a politician, and the man who killed Artie Jennings) that a new party is being formed, a Rasta party led by the Singer that will eliminate the PNP and JLP. Josey meets with a new American from the CIA, Mr. Clarke, who tells him that Jamaica is at a “crossroads” and risks going communist. Josey feels that the whole country is being taken over by “peace treaty fever” and wants nothing to do with it, insisting: “in the ghetto there is no such thing as peace.” On the phone, Josey tells Weeper that they are headed to New York.
Artie Jennings describes the Singer’s foot cancer. A Jamaican general election is called for October 30, 1980, and “a new party” wins. On May 11, 1981, the Singer dies at a hospital in Miami.
The narrative shifts forward to August 14, 1985, and to New York, where a young Jamaican woman named Dorcas Palmer (who is Nina/Kim) describes her life in the city. In the next chapter, Weeper describes having sex with a man in spite of the threat of “gay cancer” (AIDS). Josey is about to arrive to inspect a crack house in Brooklyn so he can report back to the Colombian Medellín gang. The next chapter is narrated by a Jamaican Rasta called Tristan Phillips, who is locked up in Rikers Island prison and is being interviewed by Alex Pierce. Tristan tells Alex that Papa-Lo was killed by the police in Kingston and Shotta Sheriff was killed in a nightclub in New York.
Josey talks to a highly-educated Jamaican named Eubie who, years before, left Columbia Law School to enter the drug trade. Eubie has a monopoly on the Bronx and Queens and has been recruiting men from Copenhagen City to work for him since 1977. Weeper has sex with a white man and ignores Josey’s phone call. He wishes Josey would see that he has everything in New York under control and leave him alone. Eubie calls and says he will now pick Josey up from the airport, and that Josey wants to have a look at operations in Bushwick. He tells Weeper to meet them there.
Dorcas brings a wealthy white man named Mr. Ken back to her apartment in the Bronx. Dorcas and Ken drink and dance in her apartment, but then Ken discovers a book in Dorcas’ bathroom called How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. In Rikers, Tristan tells Alex that he believes that Josey was behind the police’s murder of Papa-Lo. He says that Josey is landing in New York that day and points out that Alex is doing a poor job concealing his fear at this news. Tristan realizes Josey wants to kill Alex because Alex knows that Josey shot the Singer.
Eubie picks Josey up from the airport and Josey is immediately irritated by Eubie’s jovial, teasing manner. Eubie tells him that Weeper is now hooked on crack, which Eubie stresses is a whole different issue from Weeper’s longstanding addiction to powder cocaine. Meanwhile Ken interrogates Dorcas about the book, and she reveals that she stole the identity of another Jamaican woman named Dorcas Palmer who died in Queens in 1979. She explains that the man she’s running away from (Josey) is still in Jamaica and that she’s not worried he will find her.
Eubie and Josey reach the crack house. Weeper arrives and enters the crack house alongside Josey, who is carrying a gun in each hand. Walking quietly, Josey shoots up the house, killing a large number people including a pregnant woman.
Back at Dorcas’ apartment, Ken has locked himself in the bathroom for an hour, seemingly in shock at Dorcas’s fake identity. Ken’s son and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Colhirst, arrive and explain that Ken suffers from memory loss and doesn’t know where he is.
A killer named John-John has tied up Weeper and pressed a gun to his head. Weeper tries to recruit him to work for Storm Posse, claiming he will pay triple what his current boss, Griselda Blanco, pays him. Unsuccessful, Weeper asks for a last hit of coke before John-John kills him. John-John helps Weeper shoot it up but doesn’t explain that the coke is pure, and Weeper has a seizure and dies.
The final part of the novel jumps ahead to March 22, 1991. Josey is set to be extradited to the United States, so his son, Benjy, has taken over running Copenhagen City. However, having grown up in a state of privilege, Benjy is naïve, and one day he goes out alone on a bike and is shot and killed. Chaotic violence ensues in the aftermath of Benjy’s murder.
Doctor Love visits Josey in prison and tells him that Eubie betrayed him. Meanwhile, Eubie and his men have kidnapped Alex and forced him to read the piece he has written about them in The New Yorker aloud. Eubie tells Alex that he will have to call the magazine and make changes according to Eubie’s demands.
In prison, Josey pulls a machete on Doctor Love, who threatens to kill Josey’s only living child in return. Josey withdraws, and Doctor Love gives him pills to swallow, revealing that Josey cannot escape his fate. He waits until Josey is out cold and opens the cell door. Meanwhile Alex confesses to Eubie that Josey shot the Singer. Eubie shoots Alex in the foot and warns him never to give him a reason to see him again.
A woman named Millicent Segree (who is Nina/Kim/Dorcas) stops by a Jamaican restaurant and sees a newspaper headline saying that Josey was burned to death in his cell. She throws up. At home, she sits in a daze and then makes a call; the person who answers is Kimmy.