Walter F. Starbuck, the protagonist of the story, lives a rags, to riches, to jail, to rags, to riches, to jail life. As a young boy and son of a chauffer to a rich industrialist, Starbuck witnesses the beginnings of the labor movement and the injustices suffered by working people. However, as a favorite of one of the company owners, he earns himself a scholarship to Harvard. Is there really anyone more important that a Harvard alumnus?
After graduating from Harvard, Starbuck secures a position at the White House as the advisor on Student Affairs to President Richard Nixon. His office is in the basement and virtually forgotten by everyone in the executive branch. However, after the Watergate break in, some illicit funds are secreted away in his office which are found by the authorities. Hence, it is off to prison for Walter.
After his release he accidentally comes across one of the four women that he ever really loved. She doesn't look like much now, but she has a huge secret that ends up giving Starbuck great wealth and power. Will he be able to hold it?
This novel is a vehicle to Vonnegut's belief that every human has value. The true life story of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants that were executed by the state on trumped up murder charges, is presented in detail. What they were guilty of was organizing the labor movement. However, they were killed in an electric chair along with a third criminal who, at the last minute, confessed to the murder they stood accused of.
This is a bitter-sweet story that is very typical of the Vonnegut genre.