College professor Jack Gladney watches a long procession of station wagons drive through the campus of College-on-the-Hill in the town of Blacksmith. Observing the vibrant and healthy young students as they unpack their parents’ cars for yet another school year, Jack takes note of the wealthy confidence surrounding these people as they handle various junk foods, pieces of technology, and medications. Jack is the head of the Hitler Studies department—a field he founded—and he has made a point of watching the students arrive on campus each Fall for the past 21 years. After taking in the spectacle, he returns home to tell his wife Babette that she has once again missed the fantastic parade. As he describes to her the mannerisms of the rich parents he watched, she remarks, “I have trouble imagining death at that income level,” a remark that inspires a conversation about the impact of riches on one’s perception of mortality.
Jack and Babette live in a house at the end of a peaceful street that overlooks an expressway in the distance. Four children “by previous marriages” live with them: Heinrich, Steffie, Denise, and Wilder. As such, children and teenagers alike drift through the house, tuning into the radio, answering the phone, watching TV, or engaging in conversations ranging from the health concerns of Babette’s diet to the effects of various chemicals on lab rats. Jack and Babette take part in these conversations, often verbally sparring with their children and finding themselves intellectually challenged by their rhetoric. They also have deep private conversations in their bedroom at night. As they lie in bed, they often wonder who will die first, arguing over which of them would be more traumatized by losing the other.
Since Hitler Studies shares its offices with the popular culture department—called “American Environments” at the College-on-the-Hill—Jack becomes close friends with Murray, a visiting professor and former sportswriter. Murray is obsessed with the way Americans consume popular culture, marketing, and anything that seems to stand for something significant in the eyes of the consumer. He speaks at length about these topics, exuding an intellectual style mixed with a certain slyness.
Jack finds Babette at the high school stadium as she runs up and down the steps, which is part of her exercise routine. He embraces her, feeling a deep and affectionate attraction to her as she stands there in her sweat suit. That night, the entire family sits down to eat dinner in front of the TV, a Friday night ritual they’ve established because of Babette’s belief that indulging the children’s desire to watch TV will successfully “de-glamorize the medium in their eyes, make it wholesome domestic sport.”
Throughout the text, DeLillo frequently intersperses short lists of product or company names, such as: “The Airport Marriot, the Downtown Travelodge, the Sheraton Inn and Conference Center.” Television and radio snippets also jut into the narrative, weaving their way into the background noise of Jack’s world; “After dinner, on my way upstairs, I heard the TV say: ‘Let’s sit half lotus and think about our spines.’”
Babette and Jack run into Murray at the supermarket, a place he loves. Moving through the aisles, Murray waxes poetic about the various forms of packaging on the shelves. He also speaks eagerly to Babette, whom he’s just met for the first time and to whom he is clearly attracted, commenting to Jack that her hair is “a living wonder.” Excitedly sniffing the products in Jack’s and Babette’s shopping basket, he walks outside with the couple before they drive him home.
As the semester progresses, Jack continues to see Murray, with whom he has long and wide-ranging conversations inspired by relatively ordinary events, like grocery shopping. Meanwhile, the elementary school that Steffie and Denise attend is evacuated because of a chemical contamination causing students to experience a battery of physical ailments. While Steffie and Denise stay home, a team tests the school, measuring for various chemicals. However, because their suits are made of Mylex, which is itself “a suspect material,” the final results of their tests are inconclusive, and they are forced to re-inspect.
Once again, Babette and Jack find Murray at the supermarket. While Murray follows Babette down an aisle—speaking rapturously about the “psychic data” projected onto the consumer by all the colorful packaging and brand advertisements on the grocery store shelves—Steffie takes the opportunity to tell Jack (her biological father) that Denise (her stepsister) is worried about Babette’s use of a certain unknown medication. Jack admits he hadn’t known she was taking anything at all. Later, as they traverse the parking lot, they hear that one of the men in Mylex “collapsed and died” while doing a sweep of the elementary school.
In the kitchen at home, Denise chastises her mother for chewing gum that causes cancer in laboratory animals. Babette insists that this habit is harmless and that she only chews two pieces per day, an assertion Denise and Steffie don’t believe. They argue that Babette is so forgetful she wouldn’t even be capable of remembering how many pieces of gum she chews, to which Babette responds, “What do I forget?” Later, Babette asks Jack if her forgetfulness is as noticeable as Denise made it sound. Jack tries to reassure her that everybody forgets things, saying that these days “‘forgetfulness has gotten into the air and water.’” When she wonders if the gum she’s chewing is causing her memory to fail, Jack brings up the medication Denise mentioned. Babette claims that, to the best of her knowledge, she isn’t taking anything. At the same time, though, she concedes that—if her memory is truly bad—she might be taking something and then forgetting about it. “‘Either I’m taking something and I don’t remember or I’m not taking something and I don’t remember,’” she says.
Between the fall and spring semesters, a train carrying deadly chemicals derails not far from Jack’s house. The chemical—eventually identified as Nyodene D.—rushes out in huge amounts. In the attic, Heinrich watches this disaster through binoculars as Jack periodically comes up to trade information with him about the disaster. Soon they are instructed to evacuate. The family gets in the car and joins a mass exodus as everybody in their part of town heads for an emergency-ready Boy Scout camp. On the way, Jack pulls over at a gas station and refuels the car’s empty tank.
At the Boy Scout camp, Blacksmith citizens gather in huddles, passing information back and forth. Since Jack possibly exposed himself to Nyodene D. while refueling the car, he stands in line to speak with a technician who works for a program called SIUMVAC, an evacuation simulation. The technician takes down several particulars regarding Jack’s medical history, typing them into a small computer. “‘You’re generating big numbers,’” he says, telling Jack that the computer is showing “bracketed numbers with pulsing stars.” In the vaguest possible terms, he informs Jack that he certainly has a “situation” on his hands, but that they won’t know more for another fifteen years—that is, if Jack is still alive. “‘If you’re still alive at the time, we’ll know that much more than we do now,’” the technician tells Jack.
In the middle of the night, the Gladneys are woken up by an announcement that everybody needs to evacuate the Boy Scout camp because of a wind change: the toxic cloud is now headed directly in their direction. The family scrambles into the car and once more joins the mass chaos of drivers trying to escape. Jack does everything he can to stay away from the cloud, even driving through a snowy field before finally reaching Iron City, a nearby metropolis, at dawn.
After spending nine days in a karate studio in Iron City, the Gladneys can return home. One night not long after the Spring semester begins, Jack finds a medication bottle taped to the underside of the radiator. The pills he finds are called Dylar and are unlisted in Denise’s Physician’s Desk Reference, so Jack takes one of them to the College-on-the-Hill to be analyzed by a brilliant young science professor, Winnie Richards. He also tries asking Babette—who has been acting uncharacteristically withdrawn—about the medication, but she feigns ignorance and distracts Jack by telling him she wants to hop into bed with him. When Winnie finishes analyzing the Dylar, all she can tell Jack is that the pills are exquisitely constructed. Regarding their medical use, though, she has no insight to offer.
In bed one night, Jack finally forces Babette to talk to him about the Dylar. She tells him that she had been going through what she thought was a phase, but she eventually came to see it as a condition. It becomes clear that this condition she’s referring to is an acute fear of death. She tells him that she saw an advertisement in a newspaper calling for volunteers for secret research. After a number of screenings and preliminary considerations, she was chosen as a test subject for Dylar, a drug that eliminates an individual’s fear of death. Because Dylar has so many side effects, though, the trial was stopped and the research company’s support was revoked. But Babette was desperate to continue, so she struck a deal with one of the head researchers, to whom she refers by the pseudonym “Mr. Gray.” In exchange for Dylar, she had sex with Mr. Gray in a motel on a regular basis. The medication, however, failed to work.
Babette refuses to tell Jack the researcher’s actual name, for fear that he will succumb to the male impulse toward violent rage and seek revenge on Mr. Gray. She also won’t allow him to get ahold of some Dylar for himself, which he begins to yearn for with great intensity, claiming that he’s the one who has always feared death. At around that same time, Babette’s renegade father arrives for an unannounced visit and privately gives Jack a handgun.
During a long walk around campus, Murray and Jack talk about his fear of death. Winding through many highly obtuse theories and philosophies, Murray eventually suggests, hypothetically, that if Jack killed somebody, he would be released from his fear. Not long after this conversation, Jack starts carrying the handgun around, feeling its power and heft as it sits hidden in his pocket. When Winnie tells him she found a scientific article about Dylar that anonymously reveals Babette’s story, he is pleased to finally learn the location of Mr. Gray’s motel.
Shortly thereafter, Jack steals his neighbor’s car from their driveway and drives to the old German section of Iron City, where he knew Mr. Gray’s motel would be. When he arrives in Gray’s room, the man is watching TV. His real name is Willie Mink, and he acts very strange, often throwing whole fistfuls of Dylar into his mouth. He answers Jack’s questions about Dylar disjointedly and distractedly, frequently reciting lines from past TV or radio shows with no apparent ability to separate real life from the media he has consumed. Eventually Jack corners him in the bathroom, reveling in the power he feels at having freed himself of his fear. He shoots Willie twice in the stomach. Then he sets to work putting the pistol in Willie’s hand, to make the death look like a suicide. When he’s not paying attention, though, Willie unsteadily shoots Jack in the wrist. The bullet eviscerates the power and elation Jack has been feeling, and he suddenly sees Willie for what feels like the first time. After using a handkerchief to slow his own bleeding, he sets to work helping Willie, dragging him across the motel room floor and loading him into his car, all the while feeling like a proud savior.
After driving around Iron City with the wounded Willie Mink in the backseat, Jack finds a hospital in a Pentecostal church staffed by nuns. Luckily, Willie doesn’t remember what happened, so Jack is able to convince him that he—Willie—shot Jack and then turned the gun on himself. After a nun—who tells Jack she doesn’t believe in God—patches up his wrist, he leaves Willie at the hospital and drives home, parking the car back in his neighbor’s driveway despite the fact that the interior is covered in blood. At home he climbs into bed with Babette but can’t sleep, so he goes downstairs and has a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.
Later that same day, Babette’s young son Wilder ventures away from the house with his tricycle, winding up at the expressway, which he then purposefully crosses despite the zooming traffic. Cars careen by, but he pedals steadily to the other side, where he then gently falls off the low shoulder and begins to cry. The book concludes with Jack and Babette realizing disconcertingly that the supermarket shelves have all be rearranged.