The narrator of this cold and elegant novel of ideas, Nathan Zuckerman, is recalling 1956: as a 23-year-old Jew with literary ambitions, he comes to pay homage to the distinguished writer, E. I. Lonoff, whose work he idolises. Nathan has sent his hero his first published short stories and the older writer, seeing promise in them, has asked him to dinner. Lonoff is, Nathan tells him, ‘the Jew who got away’ from different aspects of his race’s fate – not just from the pogroms of the Old Country, or from being compromised by Zionism, but also from the savagery of literary New York. He now lives in a beautiful old house in the Berkshires with his upper-class Gentile wife – symbols, for eager young Nathan, of the success which he longs to emulate.
Like Stephen Dedalus, of whom we are explicitly reminded a number of times in this self-consciously literary book, Nathan is looking for a father-figure, and it is revealed in a series of flashbacks that Lonoff is not the first successful Jewish writer on whom he has tried to impress himself.