One night, Robert and his old friend Hrvoje meet in a bar. Hrvoje asks Robert about his life, and Robert explains that he’s been selling drugs. Hrvoje points out that Robert could easily find other work if he wanted to, and Robert—as usual—just laughs.
Robert never has an answer when people tell him that he’s better than a drug dealer—he knows he is, but for some reason he doesn’t look for better work.
Robert goes to Pula, Croatia, Hrvoje’s hometown. There, he meets Lana Kasun, a Croatian woman, and later starts dating her. He begins to develop a scheme to move to Croatia and make a fortune selling ice-makers—which, it would seem, don’t exist in Croatia.
Robert continues to pursue unusual, sometime risky-seeming business ventures rather than finding regular work.
In the fall of 2008, Robert approaches Ina with an idea: Ina can get her gun license, buy handguns, and then file claims saying the guns have been stolen. Robert will then sell the handguns for double the price. Ina’s initial reaction is simple: “Fuck no.” She’s always been able to accept Robert’s drug dealing, but selling guns is intolerable to her. Soon after, she joins the navy and leaves Newark.
Robert’s business schemes become increasingly foolish and risky, and his friends tell him that he’s absurd. While Ina doesn’t join the navy simply because of Robert’s business proposal, she’s clearly drifting apart from Robert, in part because of his inability to focus on any goals in his life.
Around the same time, Robert gets a promotion at work. The work allows him to sit at a desk, and it pays much better. In his new position, Robert spends time studying chemistry to stay up to speed. Some of his colleagues talk behind his back, saying that a Yale graduate has no business working with them. Meanwhile, Oswaldo is coming to the end of his time in medical school. When he sees Robert, he notices that Robert seems pettier and less curious than he was at Yale. When Robert asks him for drug contacts in Philadelphia, Oswaldo replies, “Get the fuck out.” In this moment, Oswaldo realizes that Robert’s “troubles were self-inflicted.”
Oswaldo notices that Robert seems to have lost some of his ambition and open-mindedness, the very qualities that made him such a successful young man. Oswaldo refuses to tolerate Robert’s aspirations of being a big drug dealer. While many of Robert’s problems and underlying issues are a product of his background, family situation, and various oppressive systems, Oswaldo here indirectly calls him out for the problems that are direct results of bad choices.
Jeff and Ty get together and reminisce about college. They admit they haven’t heard from Robert in a long time. Ty and Jeff have had their share of successes and failures. Ty is expecting a child, and he’s about to become a doctor, but he’s desperate for money. Jeff’s second novel wasn’t accepted by any publishers, meaning that he’s had to do copy-editing to support himself. They agree to reunite with Robert soon, but never get around to arranging the details.
In many ways, the book paints a pessimistic portrait of an elite college education and its aftermath. Students spend four years believing that the world is at their feet, and that they can do anything. Because they’ve been living in a cloud of success and optimism for so many years, they find it tough to adjust to the pressures of post-college life—the real world is a lot tougher than they’ve been led to believe.
Robert and Tavarus keep planning their real estate company. They envision convincing some St. Benedict’s alumni to invest in the company, and then presenting a business plan to urban planners. Privately, Tavarus thinks that Robert’s Yale credentials will be helpful for attracting interest in the company, although he worries that Robert’s current job at an airport will undermine his credibility.
Even Robert’s close friends, once dazzled by his intelligence, begin to see that Robert is underachieving, hence Julius’s worry about Robert’s airport job.
Robert gets a visit from an old Yale classmate, Isabella Peretzian, who used to spend a lot of time with Robert listening to hip-hop. These days, she writes about rap music for various music websites, and has generally outstripped Robert in her music knowledge. Isabella continues to worship Robert, however—he seems “real” in a way that none of her friends are.
It’s somewhat poignant that Isabella has become more knowledgeable than Robert, her old mentor, when it comes to hip-hop. This symbolizes the way that Robert’s progress has been arrested, while his friends go on to surpass him in various ways.
Robert begins dating a woman named Rene Millien. Rene lives in Brooklyn and works as a digital artist. The two meet at Raquel’s thirtieth birthday party in Soho, New York; Rene is an old friend of Raquel, but Robert promises Raquel that he’ll treat her right. In the coming months, Rene comes to know Robert as a kind, surprisingly tender man.
Robert is a gentle, good-hearted man, but he lacks the motivation or even the desire to make changes in his life. He keeps dating different women (it’s very unclear, based on Hobbs’s account, if these girlfriends overlap or not), but seems to treat them better than he did his earlier girlfriends.
It’s November 2010, and Robert is busy at the airport. One day, he makes a huge mistake: while disengaging the conveyer belt that transports baggage from the plane to the airport, he forgets to fold down the steel rails on the conveyer. As a result, an airplane hits the side of the conveyer belt, damaging the door. Robert recognizes what he’s done, but decides that the airplane door is fine. Soon, it’s discovered that the door needs to be replaced. Robert admits he was the last person to handle the door. His superiors ask him for a urine sample, which he refuses to provide, since he’s been smoking weed. Instead of going through the usual union appeals process, Robert simply leaves his job and never comes back.
Robert makes a careless error here. Although he shows maturity by standing up for his error, he refuses to stick around and appeal his dismissal, as is the standard practice. It’s as if he never really wanted to work for the airport in the first place, meaning that he has little to no incentive to stick around and fight for his job.
In August 2010, Jeff gets a Facebook message from Robert. At this time, Jeff and Rebecca have had a baby daughter, and they’re badly in debt. Jeff sometimes envies people like Robert and Ty, whom he believes to have majored in subjects that can provide them with more career opportunities. He knows that Robert is working in an airport, but he assumes this means some kind of corporate job.
Ironically, Jeff believes that people like Robert have it good, since they studied a hard science at Yale. He has no idea that his good friend, one of the groomsmen at his wedding, is going through much harder times than Jeff is. Robert is still “fronting” to Jeff, again calling into question just how good of friends they ever were.
Meanwhile, Jackie becomes increasingly saddened by Robert’s path in life. Robert leaves money for her, but he seems worn-out and depressed. He rarely spends time with her.
The spark that motivated Robert to succeed in high school and at Yale seems almost extinguished. For Jackie, who’s always dreamed of her son’s success in life, this is heartbreaking.