Divorce and the loss of his job have left Peter at the mercy of a series of psychologists. Teaching at an all-black college in the deep South promises a new beginning. Within hours after pulling off the Interstate, Pete has an apartment, an answering service, and a new girl friend, Peri Mattox.
But the presence of so many blacks makes him nervous. The woman whose job he's taking hasn't left yet and doesn't plan to. Senior faculty resent his existence. And his cover-your-ass boss makes it clear it's to be sink or swim.
Going alone to an after-hours social at the college gymnasium, he learns of the color- and gender-based social distinctions African-Americans make among themselves. And he meets two women who will figure prominently later in the novel-Jewlie Larsson, Peri's aerobic instructor and Mrs. Angel the white wife of the very-black, very promiscuous Dean of Agriculture.
Peter agonizes over his relationship with Peri. They live only in the now, never discuss their children, their jobs, or their past marriages. It is only that minor part of his life in Pineville that they share. And Peri doesn't like black people, wont associate with them.
Faces emerge from the (almost) all-black student body, recognizable personalities: Martin King, the student-body president--is he brown-nosing or sincere in his praise; Kitisha Jackson, the brightest student at the college, afraid to excel lest no man will date her; and a dozen or more students bearing petitions, generally ill-conceived, often fraudulent, for unexcused absences or desired changes in grades.
Still, Peter's position at the college seems increasingly temporary. Changes he thought he'd made to his department (accompanied by all the necessary signatures) never materialize. He turns to Peri for comfort, only to find she is leaving him for Jewel.
The opening chapter of this novel, an invocation, found Peter in the office of a psychiatrist. In the closing chapter, again in a psychiatrist's office, we view the events of the novel in a completely different light.
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