This short novel confines itself to a few weeks after the Parker family has moved from Idaho to Salt Lake City. The father, Billy, a lovable ne'er-do-well, has decided that he could get a degree in accounting from a community college there, and the family's rise up the socioeconomic ladder could begin. Mary, the mother, gets a job as a nurse's aide in an old folks' home, work that she's decidedly unsuited for but that provides a family income while Billy tries to create a profession for himself. Jenny, the lovely younger child, wants desperately to fit in at her school. And then there is Steven. Not only the new poor kid on the block, but also a sensitive atheist surrounded by Mormons, he is shunned and beaten by his schoolmates.
Just when the Parkers (and the readers) think that things might be looking up, Billy flunks out of community college and Mary decides to leave him for a wealthy and recently divorced lawyer who can give her that fabled "financial security." Steven tries in increasingly desperate and doomed ways to keep his family together.
It's a sad story, and one we've heard before. What's distinctive about this telling is the quality of Steven's perceptions. He sees things with a clarity and edge that recall Salinger's Holden Caulfield. For instance, when his sister starts sounding like the Mormon children she is trying to fit in with, he hears the pious phrase "inherit the Glory." At first Steven teases her, but then he starts thinking: