American Psycho begins with a quote from Dante’s Inferno: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here” is graffitied across the side of a bank in blood-red paint. It is the late 1980s in New York city. The reader is introduced to the novel’s narrator, Patrick Bateman, a 27-year-old Wall Street investment banker. Bateman, who relays the action of the novel, as well as his innermost thoughts, opinions of others, and musings on popular culture, is with his friend, Timothy Price, on their way to have dinner at the home of Bateman’s girlfriend, Evelyn Richards. Evelyn’s best friend, Courtney Lawrence, with whom Bateman is having an affair, will also be in attendance, along with two friends of Evelyn, Stash and Vanden, strange, artistic types who graduated from Camden.
From this first dinner, Bateman goes on to relay the stream-of-consciousness musings and events of his highly-regimented life. He describes his morning routine, which consists of a fitness regimen, skin-care regimen, and a carefully planned breakfast. He watches “The Patty Winters Show” (a daytime talk show) religiously, often calling his friends to ridicule the guests for their strange habits, fears, or perversions, and is always renting and returning VHS tapes of his favorite films. Bateman and his circle of Wall Street friends – which often includes Price, Craig McDermott, and David Van Patten – dine at only the chicest and most expensive restaurants, wear only the finest designer clothes, and pay attention to only the most physically attractive women (those they deem “Hardbodies”).
What may appear at first to be the perfect life for a wealthy man immersed in the capitalist, materialistic society of 1980s Wall Street, however, has a dark underbelly. Not only is Bateman unhappy in his relationship with Evelyn, he has a sex obsession and occupies most of his evenings with lovers, porn, and prostitutes. He and his friends are also heavy drinkers and drug users; cocaine is the drug of choice for the men, while Courtney and the novel’s other women tend more towards anti-depressants and other pills. Despite spending lots of time together, Bateman and his crowd have little-to-no real connection with one another. They focus solely on the clothes they wear, the places they are seen, and who they are with. They despise and mock anyone who does not have their wealth or taste, especially the homeless, who they often ridicule and taunt. In his world of extreme capitalism and consumption, where people are simply other objects to be valued or discarded, Bateman and his vices are isolated inside his own mind.
To top it all off, Patrick Bateman is revealed as a sociopathic serial killer. Early in the novel, Bateman fantasizes about committing violent acts. When he is out to dinner with Evelyn or at a nightclub with his friends, for example, he will describe the painful things he would like to do to others; he also references murders he has committed in the past, though it is initially unclear whether or not these events truly transpired. As the novel continues, however, Bateman’s violent thoughts are accompanied by violent actions, as he describes in detail acts of rape, torture, and murder.
Patrick Bateman kills people who he believes are devoid of value. One of the first attacks the reader experiences through Bateman’s narration is the murder of a homeless man named Al and his dog. Bateman spots him sitting on the sidewalk and stops to taunt him, calling him worthless and disgusting and asking why he doesn’t simply “get a job.” Al begins to cry, and then Bateman suddenly stabs him in the eye. After slicing and gouging out one eye, Bateman goes after the next. Al’s dog begins to bark, and Bateman stamps on his legs, breaking them. He tosses a quarter at the man and walks away. (Later in the novel, he will see Al again and stab him to death on the street.)
Bateman also describes to the reader the torture and murder of a number of women. He hires call girls to come to his apartment (or occasionally takes a woman home after a date), gets them drunk or high, and has sex with them. The sex, which he describes graphically, is often coercive and very rough and leads into Bateman raping the women, tying them up, and slowly torturing them to their deaths.
The most prominent murder committed by Bateman in the novel is that of Paul Owen, a fellow Wall Street investment banker who Bateman despises. Owen is the manager of the mysterious “Fisher account,” a bank account Bateman is obsessed with and always asking after. On top of that, Owen is constantly confusing Bateman for another banker named Marcus Halberstam. One night, Bateman (or, rather, Halberstam) takes Owen out to dinner. He gets him incredibly drunk, has him pay the check, and the two go back to Owen’s apartment. There, Bateman murders Owen with an axe. He cleans up the scene, packs a suitcase of Owen’s things, and books a one-way ticket to London to throw off any suspicions surrounding Owen’s disappearance. Bateman disposes of Owen’s body, but will later use his apartment for other murders and leave a number of dead bodies behind.
One day, while at work, Bateman’s doting secretary Jean (or, as he calls her, “my secretary who is in love with me”) tells him that a detective has come to see him. The detective, Donald Kimball, tells Bateman that he has been hired by Paul Owen’s girlfriend to investigate his disappearance. He wants to ask Bateman for some general information about Owen and details of Bateman’s whereabouts on the night of the disappearance. Bateman tells Kimball that Owen was “part of that whole Yale thing” and “ate a balanced diet” and that he had a (fictional) date with a woman named Veronica on the evening in question. When Bateman asks Kimball if Paul Owen has been seen by anyone in London, he replies that, yes, two people have mentioned possibly spotting him on the other side of the pond. Somewhat relieved, Bateman ends their conversation.
Meanwhile, Bateman is growing more and more erratic in his behavior and sadistic and reckless in his crimes. His drug use increases heavily, as he begins adding to his cocaine habit an addiction to a number of different pills, leading to frequent hallucinations. On one day, he describes to the reader a reaction to pills that leaves him sick and stumbling through the streets of New York, before ending up in a diner where he is so high he isn’t even able to place an order. His torture and murder of young women also escalates. The killings become much more drawn out, and often include Bateman performing sex acts on his victims’ dying or dead bodies. In one particularly gruesome moment, he disintegrates a woman’s vagina with acid until he is able to stuff it with cheese and then insert into it the end of a cage—where he has been keeping a rat which he found in his toilet. He describes to the reader the rat eating away at the woman’s flesh and crawling around inside her body, only to be revealed later when Bateman cuts off the woman’s head. He also descends into cannibalism, at one point taking the reader through the meticulous preparation and consumption of a woman’s flesh. Bateman also stops reserving his killing for people who may not be missed; he murders his ex-girlfriend Bethany after getting her drunk at lunch and even stabs a young child to death in a public park.
One night, as he is walking through New York, Bateman sees a man playing saxophone on the street corner. Bateman quickly pulls out a gun and shoots the man to death, not noticing that he is within sight of a police car. This begins a police chase throughout Manhattan during which Bateman kills several other people, including a taxi driver whose car he hijacks. The chase ends with Bateman hiding in his new office, as SWAT teams and helicopters surround the building. Hysterical, Bateman makes a phone call to his lawyer, Harold Carnes, and confesses all of his crimes, including the murder of the missing Paul Owen. Bateman begins to hallucinate, staying in the office until the sun starts to rise, and then breaks from the action to detail to the reader the entire career of the band Huey Louis and the News.
Days later, Bateman (somehow still free and living his normal life) returns to Paul Owen’s apartment, preparing to be greeted with the smell of rotting corpses. Instead, he finds the apartment open and miraculously clean; a realtor is showing the apartment to potential buyers. She asks Bateman if he “saw the add in The Times.” Bateman looks around in disbelief, and quickly leaves.
Several weeks later, at the opening of a new club, Bateman spots his lawyer across the room. He decides to go over and confront him about the voicemails he left the night of the police chase. Carnes, his lawyer, is amused, mistaking Bateman for someone else and teasing that the “joke” was unbelievable because Bateman is “such a bloody ass-kisser” that he would never be able to commit the acts described in the voicemail. What’s more, Carnes tells him, Bateman couldn’t have killed Paul Owen because he dined with Owen twice just the week before.
The novel ends much like it began: with Bateman out for drinks with his friend, discussing clothing, their work, and other vacuous topics. The reader is left to wonder how Bateman’s scattered life of drugs, sex, and violence will continue, as his eye is caught by a sign hung on the wall of the bar. The sign reads: “This is not an exit.”