Survival has been the Sledge way since Reuben Sledge's father first moved to Des Moines. Yet the family seems cursed, and one by one the Sledges are slipping away. Reuben's oldest brother is hanged for the murder of his wife. Then another brother is committed to an asylum for spying on the woman he loves. But it's the rape and disgrace of his beloved sister Nellie that drives Reuben into a deep despair. Into the depths of this depression wanders Tabor, lovely and vulnerable, who sets Reuben alive with the promise of her love. When Reuben learns that Tabor has descended into the City, he determines, in a moment of panic, to enter and bring her out. Thus begins the novel's second act, a harrowing journey through the horrors of the City and among a ghastly assemblage of dwellers who've crafted new lives for themselves in the underworld.