Lou Kline, his girlfriend Mindy, and his two children, Rolph and Charlie, are on an African safari. Several other characters join them, including Chronos, the bassist of one of the bands on Lou’s label, and Dean, an actor who has a habit of stating the obvious. One evening, as they sit around a bonfire, Rolph asks Charlie if she remembers a vacation they took with their mother to Hawaii. Charlie is focused on her father’s legs, which are intertwined with Mindy’s. She knows they will retire to their tent and make love. She will hear their movement, but Rolph is too young to notice. Charlie reminds Lou that he was married to their mother on that trip. Lou says he is aware of that.
This first scene appears to be one of connection as the group sits around the bonfire, but Rolph and Charlie’s preoccupation with the memory of the vacation they took with their mother undercuts this. Charlie, unlike Rolph, is old enough to understand the intimate details of her father and Mindy’s relationship, and uses the mention of her mother in an attempt to disrupt their connection. Lou senses her motive, and brushes it off.
Two elderly birdwatchers, Fiona and Mildred, trade a sad smile, hearing this familial dispute. Lou has been flirtatious with them, asking them to take him bird watching. They suspect Lou’s charm has created challenges in his relationships. In fact, Lou has had two failed marriages, and has two other children in L.A. who are two young to come on the safari.
At their age, Fiona and Mildred seem to have insight into the nature of the family’s struggle. They see through Lou’s charm, and understand that his egotism has led to destruction in his relationships.
A group of Samburu warriors arrives, and Charlie recognizes a young warrior who has scars on his chest. The warriors begin to sing in guttural voices. Charlie moves closer to them. She notes that she is becoming a different sort of girl, acting out in surprising ways. She earlier gave away a pair of earrings (which her father had given her) to a woman whose breasts were leaking milk. When the tour guide, Albert, found Charlie in the village, he told her that her father was not happy, but she didn’t care.
At this point Charlie seems to be defining herself through her defiance of her father. This is depicted in the act of giving away the earrings he bought her. The detail about the woman’s breasts leaking milk associates her with the idea of a mother, suggesting Charlie’s longing for connection with her own absent mother.
The young warrior smiles at Charlie. He has lived away from his village since he was ten, but he understands that in Charlie’s culture, she is a child. The narrative then flashes forward, revealing that the young man will die in tribal warfare, but one of his grandchildren named will go to college at Colombia, study robotic technology, and marry an American named Lulu. His technology will be used for crowd security in New York City.
The young warrior’s perspective challenges Charlie’s perceived independence. She believes she is an adult, but the warrior sees her as a child. The narrative leap forward to the young warrior’s death further separates Charlie’s experience from his own, speaking to the idea of cultural disconnection. In this flash forward, the reader also receives a glimpse of the future in America where technology abounds. This America (and the character of Lulu) will be featured later in the novel.
While Charlie watches the warriors perform, Lou takes Rolph for a walk. He tells Rolph that his sister is acting crazy, and that all women are crazy. Rolph says his mother is not crazy, and Lou agrees, saying she was not crazy enough. Lou asks if Rolph likes Mindy. Rolph says he does, though he doesn’t know if she is crazy, or the right kind of crazy. Lou puts his arm around Rolph. Lou is not introspective enough to understand that his son is the only person who can soothe him. He doesn’t realize that he enjoys the fact that Rolph is different from him, in that Rolph is quiet, reflective, and aware of the pain of others.
Lou and Rolph’s walk is a moment of meaningful connection, though it is tainted by Lou’s misogynistic musings. Rolph is too young to understand the ruinous implications of his father’s statement, and its connection to the end of his parents’ marriage. Unconsciously, Lou knows that his egotism and prejudice is appalling, which is why he admires Rolph. Rolph is the polar opposite of Lou.
Rolph closes his eyes and thinks he will remember this night for the rest of his life, and the narrator reveals that he will. They return to camp and Rolph goes into his tent. He expects Charlie to be asleep, but when she speaks he can tell she has been crying. She asks him where he went.
Rolph understands that this moment of connection is important, though the meaning of the exchange will change as he ages, eventually holding a devastating force in his life. When he returns, we see a more authentic side of Charlie. Her hard surface has fallen, and she is shown in a vulnerable state.
The following day, they pack their things and begin traveling toward the hills. Cora, Lou’s travel agent, is rude to Mindy. Mindy, an anthropology Ph.D. student at Berkley, ascribes a structural cause to the behaviors and emotions she notices. She believes Cora hates her because she is younger and dating a powerful man. Charlie, meanwhile, is experiencing structural resentment, in which the adolescent daughter of a twice-divorced man will not accept his new girlfriend. Finally, Mindy calls Rolph’s affection for his father structural affection, in which a child embraces his father’s new girlfriend because he can’t separate his loves from his father’s, and the new girlfriend will feel maternal toward the child.
Mindy misses the complexity of emotion and the conflicts present in the group by analyzing them only through a theoretical lens, ultimately leading to a disconnection from and misunderstanding of others. A great deal of irony rests in the fact that anthropologists are meant to understand cultures, while the complex culture of her own group eludes her.
Mindy begins thinking about her own relationship with Lou, and realizes it will be temporary due to structural incompatibility, meaning Lou, who is much older and more powerful than she is, will not accept her ambitions. She turns her attention to Albert, the safari guide, and thinks of the term structural desire, which suggests that a younger mate of a powerful male will be drawn to the closest male who disdains her mate’s power.
Viewing her relationship with Lou through a structural lens allows her to rationalize her lack of attachment to Lou and her attraction to Albert, shirking responsibility for her feelings. This is fundamental to Mindy’s character—though she identifies strongly with her ambition and intelligence, she analyzes her way out of culpability for her feelings and actions.
Chronos, the bassist for a band signed to Lou’s label, sits beside Albert in the font seat. Chronos argues with the bassist of his band (who is also on the safari) about who has seen the most animals, something Mindy calls structural fixation. Albert swerves the truck off the road through the tall grass, and parks beside a pride of lions—two females, one male, and three cubs. Lou, Charlie, Rolph, Chronos, and Dean stand up, their upper bodies emerging through the sunroof. Mindy, effectively alone with Albert in the vehicle, realizes she is attracted to him. Very softly, Albert tells Mindy she is driving him crazy. Mindy says her hands are tied, and when Albert asks if it will be forever, she tells him it’s an “interlude.”
Mindy’s structural analysis of each interaction also serves as a way for her to feel superior to others on the trip, but once she is left alone with Albert, she finds connection with him. The connection pulls her from her intellectual musings, and she experiences a true desire for Albert, which surprises her. She suspects that her relationship with Lou will be temporary, but the story later reveals that it will last longer than she suspects, showing her lack of insight into the future and even her own nature.
As they talk, Chronos gets out of the car and approaches the lions, taking photos. When one of the female lions suddenly pounces on him, Albert shoots and kills it. Lou jumps from the car, pushing Mindy back inside. She realizes he wants her to stay with the kids. Mindy is frightened, along with the children, but she hides her fear. Mildred, one of the elderly birdwatchers on the trip, rests her hand on Mindy’s shoulder and tells her Chronos will be fine.
Chronos’ foolish decision causes the lioness to die, which speaks to the ruin human kind causes in the natural world. This idea is explored to a greater extent later in the novel. Mindy, in an attempt to take on a motherly role, hides her true feelings, but Mildred sees through her, and comforts her.
That evening, the group goes to a bar at a mountain hotel. Albert is held up as a hero, though he knows his boss will reprimand him, even though Chronos only received a minor wound and two stiches. The narrative then flashes forward, revealing that members of the trip will reconnect in the future. Dean, the movie star who likes to state the obvious, will reconnect with a girl named Louise, who was twelve at the time of the trip, and they will get married. Most, however, will meet and realize that their shared experience does not provide the foundation for an ongoing relationship.
The lion attack creates a stronger sense of community and connection within the group, though the flash-forward in the narrative challenges this feeling of camaraderie. Dean and Louise reconnect and find commonality, but the majority of the group does not find their single shared experience enough to merit ongoing connection. This moment offers a commentary on the way time changes people and perspectives change, and how nostalgia as a function of memory skews reality.
Rolph and Charlie meet a group of other tourist children and sneak out back to look for animals through a fence. There are no animals, but the children ask about the events of earlier that day. When Charlie tells Louise they were inches away from the lion, Rolph corrects her, saying they were feet away. Charlie then corrects him, saying feet are made of inches. Rolph is sick of the conversations about the lion, and worries that the cubs will be without a mother now. Charlie tells him maybe the father will take care of them. All the while, Mildred and Fiona are listening in on the conversation, but they are not noticed. The narrator notes that older females are easily missed. Mildred suggests that the pride (group of lions) will likely take care of the cubs.
Already the children are recreating the details of the lion attack from different perspectives and finding discrepancies in their memories. Rolph’s concern about the lioness’s cubs hints at his own pain around ruin of his parents’ marriage. Again, the older women offer their perspective to comfort Rolph, acting maternally. The comment about age speaks to the way our culture values youth and looks down upon aging. This idea is explored in depth with regard to the music industry later in the book.
Rolph goes back to the bar and finds Lou and Mindy talking to Ramsey, the owner of the safari outfit, and an old army friend of Lou’s. Lou notes that Rolph looks tired, and Mindy offers to take him upstairs. When they exit the bar, they stand for a moment on the porch. Rolph hears the other children but is relieved to be away from them. Albert is out on the porch, and he says hello to them. Mindy says hello, and takes Rolph upstairs.
In this moment, Mindy does not conceptualize the interaction through a structural lens, which suggests a change in her after the lion attack. Her desire to act maternal to Rolph is more authentic in this moment. Rolph feels disconnected from the other children, but feels happy to have his own space, a moment where disconnection is presented in a positive light.
Rolph perceives Mindy’s interaction with Albert as rude, and he asks Albert to join them upstairs. At the top of the stairs, Rolph asks Albert if his room is upstairs. Albert says he stays in room 3. Rolph offers to show Albert his room. Mindy is acting strange, and Rolph senses some tension in the room. He feels angry at Mindy, and remembers that his father said women are crazy. On the way up, Rolph wanted Mindy to tuck him in, but now he feels apprehensive about it. He says he can tuck himself in.
With his child’s perspective, Rolph does not understand that the tension in the room is sexual. He remembers his father’s statement that women are crazy, which leads to a disconnection from Mindy. This moment depicts the way in which Lou’s ruinous attitude and comments about women are already negatively affecting Rolph.
Five days later, the group takes a train to Mombasa. The train does not stop, but slows down just enough for people to jump off. Charlie and Mindy share a laugh over Dean’s obvious statements. Lou moves in and asks what is so funny, and Charlie says, “Life.” Charlie hugs Lou, and notes that she used to hug him when she was younger.
Here the train mentioned in the story “Ask Me if I Care” returns. The train, as a metaphor for time, suggests that time stops for nobody. Mindy’s openness to being maternal has caused a shift in Charlie’s lack of trust, and they find connection in this scene. Charlie has taken on a more authentic perception of herself; though she continues to view herself as mature (as shown through her comment about life), she allows herself to remain Lou’s child (as shown through the hug).
The next afternoon, they settle in a hotel near Mombasa. They go to the beach, and Lou notices a Medusa tattoo on Chronos’s chest, which he finds less startling than his potbelly. Lou notices that Chronos’s body looks like the body a father, but notes that his own body is healthy and lean. He feels proud walking on the beach with Mindy, who is more beautiful than expected in a sparkling blue bikini.
The tattoo of Medusa (a female monster in ancient Greek myth) echoes Lou’s perception of women as threatening or crazy, though he pays more attention to Chronos’s body. The body reflects the effects of time and aging, something Lou fears, and he uses Chronos’s body to comfort himself. He uses Mindy in a similar way, as a reflection of his potency and vitality.
Charlie and Rolph relax under a palm tree. Charlie says she never wants to go home, but Rolph misses their mother. He watches Mindy and Lou swim in the water. Rolph confronts the fact that his father doesn’t love his mother anymore, but attributes this to her not being crazy enough. Rolph and Charlie decide that Lou doesn’t love Mindy either, though she loves him. Rolph believes everyone loves Lou.
Though Charlie experiences a change of identity in the trip, becoming more comfortable with Mindy and her father, Rolph continues to suffer as the result of his father’s behavior. Water as a symbol reflects the idea of ruin, and the fact that Mindy and Lou are depicted there speaks to the nature of their relationship. Though Rolph understands that his father does not love his mother, he is too immature to fault his father for ruining the relationship. He still believes everyone loves his father.
After swimming with Mindy, Lou goes to get spears (for spearfishing) and snorkeling gear. He fights the urge to follow Mindy to bed, noting that she has been especially seductive and overly sexual in the past few days. He suspects their relationship will end after the trip. Lou brings Rolph down to the water, and they begin snorkeling together. Lou notices that Rolph is thin and timid, traits Lou believes he gets from his mother. Lou spears seven fish, but Rolph doesn’t kill any. He tells his father he just likes watching them.
Lou’s decision to forgo sex with Mindy and spend time with his son is a redemptive move toward connection, though his way of connecting with his son (through violence) shows his lack of understanding of Rolph’s true self.
They rest on a spit of rocks, and Rolph asks Lou what he thinks of Mindy, if she is the right kind of crazy. Rolph says she was rude to Albert. Lou asks about this, and as Rolph tells the story about Mindy and Albert’s interaction, Lou senses something happened between them. Rolph asks why Mindy was rude to Albert, and Lou says women are “cunts.” Rolph feels a deep anger at his father for saying this. Rolph turns and begins swimming back through the water as the sunsets. He imagines sharks under him, but he doesn’t look back at his father. He knows that it is excruciating for his father to watch him struggle to stay afloat, but also knows Lou will save him if he sinks.
In his naïveté Rolph clings to his father’s original comment about women, but when Lou calls Mindy a “cunt,” Rolph senses the truly destructive nature of this misogynistic comment. He rejects it, showing an authenticity to his true self in this moment. Both the sun and water appear in this scene as symbols pointing to the ruinous nature of Lou’s relationship with Rolph and the damage this will cause in the future. The setting sun depicts the end of their connection as father and son. The shift is also shown in Rolph’s decision to swim back. Instead of trying to please his father, Rolph decides to hurt him by struggling back alone.
That night at dinner, Rolph and Charlie drink wine. Rolph doesn’t like the taste, but likes the way it makes him feel. Lou has spent the past hour in bed with Mindy, having sex, and feels victorious. He is a man who can’t lose, and tells himself he doesn’t care about Albert. He makes Mildred and Fiona promise to take him bird watching the next morning.
Lou’s thought that he “can’t lose” speaks to a fundamental element of his personality—his sexual conquest of Mindy feels redemptive, but is actually objectifying and misogynistic. He doesn’t care about Mindy, but only about his own sense of victory.
Rolph and Charlie go outside together. Rolph tells Charlie that this night reminds him of the vacation to Hawaii with their mother, though he doesn’t truly believe it. Charlie says that their father is going to marry Mindy. Rolph says that his father doesn’t love Mindy, but Charlie tells him it doesn’t matter. Charlie doesn’t think Mindy is so bad, but Rolph no longer likes her.
Charlie’s comment about love and marriage shows a level of maturity that Rolph lacks. Charlie understands that her father will marry Mindy just to save face, while Rolph still believes marriage requires love.
The narrative jumps forward, revealing that Charlie will join a cult in Mexico led by a man who promotes a diet of raw eggs. She will get salmonella poisoning and return to the U.S. After that, she will become addicted to cocaine, and date a series of domineering men. All the while, she will try to repair the failed relationship between Rolph and Lou. The flash-forward continues, revealing that Lou will marry Mindy because, in his mind, that means he is the winner. After returning to the U.S. from Africa Mindy will feel dissatisfied, and drawn back to the life Lou offers her. They will have two children before divorcing. Mindy will work as a travel agent before returning to her Ph.D.
This leap forward puts the present narrative in an entirely new perspective. Lou’s ruinous relationship to and disconnection from his children will have devastating effects, as shown through the details of Charlie’s life. Driven by his ego, Lou will marry Mindy and ruin that relationship the way he ruined his relationship with Rolph and Charlie’s mother. Later chapters reveal that Lou will end up devastated and alone, while Mindy finds a happier ending, and returns to her passion for anthropology.
Back in the present, Charlie and Rolph go back into the bar, and Charlie pulls Rolph onto the dance floor. Rolph feels self-conscious. Lou dances with Mindy, who is thinking about Albert, as she will periodically after she marries Lou. Charlie notices Mildred and Fiona watching them. Charlie holds Rolph’s hands and they begin to dance. She will return to this memory through out her life, even after Rolph commits suicide at their father’s house at the age of 28. She will remember him dancing even after she goes to law school, and has her own child, who she wants to name Rolph, but can’t because it would be too painful for Lou and her mother. As they dance, Rolph stops her. He tells her that he doesn’t think the old women were ever watching birds.
Again, a moment that appears like connection actually reflects Rolph’s alienation. Rolph’s suicide shows the true outcome of his relationship with his father and the devastation of his parent’s marriage, and makes us rethink the entire story in light of this new information. Charlie, however, experiences redemption later in life. Rolph comes to the intriguing realization that the elderly birdwatchers are actually observing their family, adding a disturbing twist to the story’s end. Mildred and Fiona’s age seems to give them perspective the other characters lack, but Rolph, having realized his father’s true nature, now shares some of their understanding.