Bennie and Stephanie have moved with their son Christopher to a wealthy community called Crandale. At this point, Bennie and Stephanie are still married, and Bennie has just made a lot of money selling his record label. Stephanie finds the people of Crandale unwelcoming, and this wears on her. She thinks they are snobs, and their coldness bothers her, but she is confused by why she is bothered.
This story takes place before “The Gold Cure” and after “X’s and O’s.” Bennie has made a great deal of money in the record business, and moving to the exclusive community is his way of signifying his success. Stephanie wants to be accepted, but doesn’t want to identify with the Crandale people, which leads to inner conflict.
Bennie’s family joins the Crandale Country Club. In the locker room, a woman named Kathy says hello to Stephanie. Stephanie recognizes her because Kathy’s son goes to Christopher’s school. Stephanie notes that her body has been unchanged by childbearing. After leaving the locker room, Stephanie meets Bennie and Christopher by the snack stand, and hears people playing tennis, which causes a rush of nostalgia for her. Stephanie was a good player as a teenager. Later that evening, still at the country club, Bennie and Stephanie sip gin and tonics, and Bennie says, “so this is what it’s like.” Stephanie jokes to herself that there is no better way to mark one’s success than going to a place one doesn’t belong. Stephanie mentions buying a tennis racket.
Stephanie feels self-conscious in the locker room and envious of Kathy because she perceives Kathy’s body as younger looking than hers. This desire to regain her youthful self is reflected in nostalgia about playing tennis as a younger woman. She understands that for Bennie, moving to Crandale is an attempt to assert an identity as a conventionally successful man, and she criticizes him for it. She doesn’t realize that her desire to buy a tennis racket is similar to Bennie’s desire to move to Crandale in the first place.
Three weeks later, Stephanie and Bennie are invited to a party after a neighbor discovers that Bennie signed his favorite band, the Conduits. After tennis practice, Stephanie comes home and finds Bennie and the neighbor talking about the band. She feels good because she’d hit well at tennis practice. She also feels proud of how different she is than the other Crandale women, with her dark hair and tattoos—though she notes that she did buy a little white tennis dress to wear while playing.
Stephanie continues to desire acceptance, but also wants to distinguish herself from the other woman, showing a conflict in her identity. Her appearance—the tattoos and dark hair along with the white tennis dress—is a visual depiction of this conflict.
At the neighbor’s cocktail party, Stephanie talks with Kathy, who introduces Stephanie and Bennie to her husband, Clay. Clay wears seersucker shorts and a pink oxford shirt, which Stephanie thinks would look ironic on a different sort of person. She senses Bennie looking at Kathy, which makes her uncomfortable. Kathy suggests they play tennis sometime, and Stephanie agrees. She feels that this is a victory, but also feels ridiculous for feeling that way.
Bennie and Stephanie find connection within the community, though Stephanie is not sure how she is supposed to feel about it. Clay’s attire has a different meaning inside of Crandale than it would outside, speaking to the fluid nature of identity and the way it can shift depending on the situation.
Stephanie and Kathy soon become successful tennis partners, playing against other Crandale women. Kathy’s status in the Crandale community makes Stephanie feel at ease, in spite of her dark hair and tattoos. Yet despite their relationship, Stephanie does not like Kathy, who is a Republican and would be dumbstruck if she found out that Stephanie’s older brother, Jules had assaulted actress Kitty Jackson during an interview. Stephanie feels proud of herself when her tennis skills approach the level of Kathy’s.
Stephanie desires to be accepted and connected within the community, which she achieves through Kathy. She does not want to identify with Kathy, however, because internally she perceives herself as fundamentally different than the Crandale women. Her competitiveness toward Kathy, however, undercuts her feeling of dislike, suggesting she may admire or relate to Kathy more than she wants to admit.
As time passes, Bennie begins to sense that people in the community do not trust him. During the family’s second summer at Crandale, they attend a cocktail party where the conversation swerves toward Al Qaeda’s presence in New York City. One of the men in the conversation keeps glancing at Bennie, suggesting he may be a terrorist. They leave the party and Bennie asks Stephanie what he is doing living in a place like Crandale. Stephanie tries to defend the Crandale residents, saying that Bennie is paranoid, but Bennie calls her out, suggesting that everyone was racially profiling him. Stephanie hugs him, and suggests they move, but Bennie looks around at his home, thinking of all the work he has put into it. He says the other people can move, but he will not. Bennie says he will die in the house, and they both double over in laughter.
Bennie is judged in the community based on the color of his skin. Ethnically, Bennie is Hispanic, but the people mistake him as being of Middle Eastern descent. On one level, this shows the inability to know a person’s true identity based on their external markers. Beyond this, the neighbors’ assumptions are downright racist, and leave Bennie and Stephanie feeling disconnected. Bennie’s pride drives his desire to stay, and is so strong that he suggests he will die in the house. Both Bennie and Stephanie realize the absurdity of his statement, which inspires their laughter.
Bennie begins giving Stephanie a hard time about playing tennis with Crandale women, whom he calls fascists. Stephanie is unwilling to break the friendship that gives her easy assimilation in the Crandale community, however. She does not want to be like her outcast neighbor Noreen, who has awkward mannerism and shaky hands. None of the Crandale women talk to her.
Stephanie’s association with the Crandale women leads to disconnection between her and Bennie. Noreen also becomes the embodiment of what Stephanie fears the most; she doesn’t want to be rejected.
Stephanie begins scheduling her tennis games later in the day so Bennie won’t see her in her tennis outfit. This is easy to do since Stephanie has begun working freelance for a PR woman named La Doll. Stephanie writes this deception off as protecting Bennie, instead of lying. She notes that Bennie has told his share of lies over the years.
Stephanie’s lying shows the growing distance between herself and Bennie. It becomes clear at this point that moving to Crandale was in part an attempt to redeem their relationship.
The following spring, Stephanie’s brother, Jules, is released from prison, where he’d spent five years for the attempted rape of Kitty Jackson. In prison, he’d gone on medication for bipolar disorder, and made peace with a failed engagement. A writer, he’d also written a piece about the effect of 9/11 on the inmates, which won a PEN Prison Writing award. Stephanie has noticed, however, that Jules seems to be struggling.
Jules’ case was a high profile one that has become a topic in popular culture. In prison, he redeems himself, at least in part, by addressing his mental illness and cultivating his art. His redemption, however, seems precarious now that he has been released.
One morning, Bennie asks if Stephanie is driving to the city for work. She has begun leaving her tennis outfit at the gym so she can go play without Bennie knowing. If Bennie asked, like he did this morning, she would tell him she was going to a meeting, which was partially true since the meetings were later in the day. Stephanie lies and tells Bennie she is going to see her client Bosco—the guitarist for the Conduits—at ten. Bennie is suspicious, knowing Bosco is an alcoholic and never awake that early. Bennie asks her to call him after the meeting, and Stephanie knows she will have to cancel her tennis game.
Bennie and Stephanie’s relationship has become further disconnected by Stephanie’s dishonesty. Bennie is aware that she is keeping something from him, and challenges her. By asking Stephanie to call him after the meeting, he demonstrates his lack of trust. Their relationship is beginning to fall apart.
Stephanie cancels her game and, returning to the kitchen, finds Jules at the window. He asks what is up with the neighbor, Noreen. Stephanie says she is nuts. Noreen is doing something near their shared fence, but Stephanie can’t figure out what. Jules asks if he can catch a ride to the city. On the way out, Jules notes that he thinks Noreen is watching them. Jules fears she might be dangerous, and Stephanie jokes that it takes one to know one.
Though she has resisted it, Stephanie’s condemnation of Noreen establishes her as in alignment with the other Crandale women. She also perceives Jules as crazy, though it becomes clear that he is more perceptive than she gives him credit for.
On the ride to the city, Jules mentions that he plans to join Stephanie in her meeting with Bosco. She wonders if this is some kind of punishment for lying to Bennie. As they drive on the expressway, Jules asks if she is having an affair. Stephanie says he is out of his mind, but then wonders why he is asking such a question. Jules tells her she and Bennie seem jumpy, different than he remembered them. Stephanie feels afraid that Bennie is cheating on her, despite his promise that he would stop.
Stephanie’s thought that she is being punished depicts the guilt she feels about lying to Bennie. Jules notices that Bennie and Stephanie’s relationship is strained, and Stephanie’s painful memories of Bennie’s infidelity are triggered. This moment foreshadows the ruin already beginning to take place in Bennie and Stephanie’s marriage.
Jules admits it may just be Crandale that is making Stephanie and Bennie seem different. The place is packed with Republicans, and Jules can’t believe Stephanie and Bennie spend time with them. He feels everything is different since he returned from prison. The twin towers have fallen, security is high, and everyone sounds stoned when they are talking because they are emailing at the same time. Stephanie asks what Jules’ plan is, and he says he has no idea. When he had first come to New York, he had found a job at Harper’s magazine, and an apartment on Eighty-first that he shared with two editors and a man who won a Pulitzer prize. Stephanie doesn’t understand what happened to him. Jules says he is like America, and that their hands are dirty.
Jules, as an outsider in the Crandale community, sees the ways in which the community has changed Bennie and Stephanie’s identities. Likewise, his time away in prison allows him to see the way in which America as a whole has changed after 9/11, and the way in which technology is affecting the way people connect. Jules compares himself to America, which he believes is in a state of ruin, and his comment about dirty hands suggests that the American people are at least partly responsible.
Before going upstairs, Stephanie explains that Bosco is different than he was when the Conduits were still playing. She looks at the sun reflecting off of the cobblestone street, and remembers shooting the Conduits first album cover years ago. Stephanie and Jules go upstairs and meet Bosco, who is old, fat, alcoholic, and dying of cancer. They discuss Bosco’s new album, which is titled “A to B.” His last albums have tanked, and people have become indifferent toward him. He believes this new album will be a comeback. The word catches Jules’ attention.
Time has had a devastating impact on Bosco, which is echoed in the reflection of the sun. Bosco’s album title also speaks to the idea of time, as well as referring to the title of the book’s earlier chapter. The novel as a whole, it might be said, explores the passage from “A to B” for these characters. The fact that Bosco has been forgotten illuminates the nature of popular culture, and that fame is impermanent.
Bosco tells Stephanie that he wants interviews and features in magazines. He wants to record every humiliation, depicting the realities of getting old. “Time’s a goon, right?” he says, and Jules steps up and repeats the line. Stephanie does not believe any of these plans are going to work, but Bosco says she is too old to understand. Bosco goes on to tell Stephanie that he wants to do a national suicide tour, during which he will die on stage. Jules believes Bosco’s plan is genius, and Bosco gives him full rights to the story of his decline and suicide tour.
Bosco’s comment about time being a “goon” seemingly gives the novel its title, as well as again referring to the devastating effects of aging on these characters’ lives and bodies. Popular culture ignores the truth of aging, and remains obsessed with youth and vitality, but Bosco wants to counteract this. The suicide tour idea reflects the length Bosco is willing to go to regain his fame, but also his desire to show himself authentically. Jules, a character who is also looking for redemption, feels connected with Bosco through their shared desires.
Stephanie leaves feeling defeated, but Jules is thrilled by the new opportunity. He buys a planner and a new pen to write his appointments in. Jules asks her what is the matter, and Stephanie remembers Jules as a teenager, when he protected her. She begins to cry, realizing that this feeling has been buried under years of dealing with Jules’ struggles. Stephanie feels like everything is ending. She misses the wild drug and sex filled days before she and Bennie were married, when they were young, lucky, and strong. She feels disturbed by Bosco’s obsession with dying. Jules agrees that everything is ending, but he believes it is not ending yet.
Jules is revitalized by the prospect of redemption through writing Bosco’s story, and buying the supplies depicts his attempted reclamation of his old identity as a writer. Stephanie’s memories of Jules show just how ruinous his mental illness has been, and her tears depict the pain of their present disconnection. Stephanie holds on to the memory of a time when she was young and her relationship with Bennie was still vital and exciting, but she must now acknowledge that the past is gone.
After a second meeting, Stephanie goes to her boss’s office. Dolly (La Doll) tells Stephanie that she can feel her negativity, and she should cancel her meetings next time she feels this way, so her attitude doesn’t bother the clients. Stephanie has known Dolly forever, and calls her a “bitch.” Dolly laughs at this.
Dolly’s condemnation of Stephanie’s negativity again shows Egan commenting on the nature of the entertainment business. Stephanie’s authentic feelings would bother famous clients, so she must pretend or else avoid clients altogether.
Stephanie and Jules drive back to Crandale, where they pick Christopher up from soccer practice. He hugs her, and she feels grateful for the affection. She has a burning desire to talk to Bennie about her day. She speaks to Sasha, Bennie’s assistant, whom she used to mistrust, but has now grown fond of. Bennie is not at the office, but he calls a short while later to tell her he is stuck in traffic. Stephanie imagines laughing with Bennie about Bosco, and feeling happy again. She decides not to lie to Bennie about her tennis games anymore.
The exchange with Bosco that left Stephanie feeling like things are ending also increases her desire for connection with her family, as shown through her gratitude for Christopher and her desire to connect with Bennie. Her fantasy of laughing with Bennie reflects this desire for connection, and her decision not to lie is an attempt to redeem both herself and the relationship.
When Bennie arrives home, he goes straight into the shower. Stephanie decides to get into the shower with him, remembering that they had bought the double shower with handmade fixtures. Bennie had been adamant about buying it. She takes her clothes off, but before getting into the water, she looks through the contents of Bennie’s pockets, which he has left on the bedside table. This is an old habit she developed when Bennie was cheating. As Stephanie steps back, she feels a gold bobby pin stuck to the bottom of her foot. She knows that it does not belong to her, and suddenly realizes that Bennie is cheating on her with Kathy.
The fact that this scene revolves around the shower (water) symbolically reflects the ruin about to occur in their relationship. Stephanie believes taking a shower with Bennie will be an opportunity to reconnect, but her rifling through Bennie’s pockets also suggests a lack of trust (as well as recalling Sasha’s actions in the first chapter). Just as Stephanie has been dishonest, Bennie too has been dishonest. At this point the marriage is ruined beyond repair.
Stephanie leaves the house and goes into the yard. She can’t understand why this instance of infidelity is more painful than the others, but it is. Bennie calls from the kitchen as she staggers into a flowerbed. Stephanie kneels in the dirt by the fence. Christopher begins calling for her next, and Stephanie covers her ears. Then another voice comes from the far side of the fence. Stephanie sees Noreen through a crack in the fence boards. Noreen says she likes to sit in this spot, and Stephanie says she knows. Stephanie closes her eyes and wants to disappear. Inside the house, everyone is calling for her, including Jules. She stands and says goodnight to Noreen. As she begins moving out of the flowerbed, she hears Noreen quietly wish her a good night.
Stephanie’s physical distance from her family in this scene depicts her disconnection from them. Likewise, her close proximity to Noreen connects the two women, both of them now outcasts. Earlier, Stephanie looked down on Noreen, associating herself with the other popular Crandale women, but the falseness of this identity becomes clear in this moment of painful clarity. Stephanie, like Noreen, is truly an outsider. At the same time, Noreen finally but briefly appears as a real and complex human, one with sufferings and desires of her own.