The action takes place mainly in New York in the sixties of our century. A young talented black musician Rufus acquainted with the southern Leona. The woman has a hard time: the husband left her, taking the child, and the most difficult was that the relatives did not help her at this difficult moment. Rufus and Leon fell in love and decided to live together. But even the relatively free customs of the Greenwich Village are unbearable for them. Rufus sharply feels that the world around him is hostile to their relationship – the love of the Negro and the white woman: he seemed to bristle against them.
In Rufus wake up former complexes of the pariah from Harlem, which, it seemed to him, he won, moving to Greenwich Village and converging with a free circle of artistic bohemia devoid of racial prejudice. Rufus makes internal anxiety. to look for occasions for quarrels with Leon, tides of passion alternate with a sharp alienation, when Rufus insults Leon and even beats.
From the grief Leon is losing her mind, she is placed in a psychiatric hospital, her brother visits her and takes her home, to the South. Rufus, who, in the meantime, had changed from a class drummer to a drunkard, and for this reason lost his job, wandered the streets of New York, tormented by belated remorse. Weary of fatigue and hunger, he comes to his friend Vivaldo, the beginning writer, but even the sincere friendship of the latter, who all this time
The environment of Rufus reacts differently to his death. Richard Silenski, a writer who chased after commercial success and thus buried his talent, believes that Rufus himself is to blame for what happened to him. His wife, Cass, a clever and strong woman who always admired the talent and soulful qualities of a dark-skinned musician, believes that they, his friends, could do more for Rufus – he had to be saved. So does Ida, sister of Rufus, think: if the brother was with his family, among people with dark skin, he would not be allowed to perish. The trouble with his brother is that he was too sensitive and did not know how to defend himself. At the funeral of Rufus, where Vivaldo and Cass come, the priest says in the sermon that Rufus had lost his reason, left home, stopped going to church. As a result, he remained, as it were, unprotected, he was terribly lonely, therefore he was killed.
The yearning for the departed Rufus brings Vivaldo and Ida closer together, they are increasingly seeing themselves and do not notice how they need each other. Vivaldo loves the first time in his life: he had many adventures, but never felt deep feelings. Both of them are artistic figures – Vivaldo writes a novel, Ida dreams of a singer’s career, both have a hard life experience behind them.
Vivaldo introduces Ida in the circle of his friends – good is an excuse: Richard Silenski celebrates the release of his book. Richard is a teacher of Vivaldo, a teacher not only figuratively, but also in direct: he taught at the school where Vivaldo studied. The young man continues to see him as a mentor after school. He kindly envies the success of Richard – his own novel is moving forward very slowly, but after reading the book, remains disappointed. Richard chose the easy way, betrayed their common ideals, writing his novel as an intelligent artisan, and not an artist with a bleeding heart. Vivaldo himself is a maximalist, for him an example for imitation is Dostoevsky. Richard also has new friends – not the poor Bohemian Greenitch Village, but big publishers, literary agents, bosses of show business and television (his novel is going to be screened). Once on a visit to the couple Silenski Vivaldo and Ida get acquainted with a certain Ellis, a major television producer. He is struck by the beauty of Ida – if she has a talent in addition, he promises to help her advance. Vivaldo hears compliments sent by Ide, and in his soul rises a wave of hatred for those who are sure: everything in the world can be bought.
Return to New York from Paris, the actor Eric Jones – he was invited to play in the Broadway production. He is bisexual and several years ago fled from New York to escape from the undivided passion for handsome Rufus. The complexities of Eric’s sexual orientation are rooted in childhood, spent in the South, in Alabama. Cold relations in the family, indifference of the parents made the boy timid, insecure. The only person who is kind to him is the negro Henry, a stoker, in his boiler room Eric spent long hours listening to the man’s stories.
In Paris, Eric finally gained confidence, he was no longer tormented by the thought of his “peculiarity,” he accepted it and learned to live with it. In art, Eric does not tolerate compromises, he is extremely demanding of himself and achieved a lot in his business. When he comes to visit Silencki, the sensitive Cass instantly catches the difference between the former Eric and the one who returned to them after years of separation. Eric, mercilessly analyzing himself and his actions, is quite unlike Richard, or rather, the person that her husband became. In Richard there appeared the self-assurance of mediocrity; now he usually keeps arrogantly and treats his old friends indulgently. Cass, never worried about purely commercial success – even for the sake of children, deeply disappointed in her husband. Was it worth it to give up much for its success, if this success is a fake?
Between Cass and Richard a ripening is brewing. Cass does not speak openly about her discontent, she is locked in herself, and her husband is silent. Now Cass stays alone for a long time: to be at home for her is flour. In one of these walks, she visits Eric. Between them a novel is fastened: everyone understands that their relationship is temporary, but feels an irresistible need for warmth and support for the other.
In the meantime, Ida gives his first concert – for the present in a small bar of Grinich Village. A very sophisticated and pampered audience well accepts a young singer, despite the voice that has not been given, the lack of the necessary technique, because she replenishes all this with an inimitable individual manner – a mysterious property that does not have a name. At the same time Vivaldo learns that Ellis secretly supports the girl, pays for her lessons with a famous teacher, etc. The young man is not sure of anything, but knowing such people as Ellis, he realizes that they do nothing for nothing. He suffers, is jealous, suffers, and… suddenly he starts to get along with the novel – he enthusiastically working on the book.
Crisis relations within both pairs are resolved almost simultaneously.
One day, when Cass, as usual, comes home late, Richard calls her to a frank conversation, and straightforward Kass spends everything as it is: about her doubts about their marriage, and about the relationship with Eric. Cass’s reaction shocks Cass: there are so much torment in his eyes that she suddenly has a hope – what if their love has not died? Now they both have a lot to revise and change their minds in order to save what is left of the former love, and maybe, revive.
Ida is also acknowledged by Vivaldo for treason, but confession is given to her harder than Cass. The one has an excuse – an attraction to Eric, she respects him, their feelings at least sincere – Ida has in fact sold herself. Clenching her teeth, she tells Vivaldo with a stony face what it means to be a black girl in a world dominated by white men. When Rufus committed suicide, Ida decided that he would not go his way, but would be able to resist the world and get everything he wanted from him in any way. When Ellis appeared, Ida realized that after the novel with him, if she behaved cleverly, it would mean something in itself. After parting with Ellis, she returned to Vivaldo, hating and despising herself, and, going up to the house, prayed that the beloved was absent. So everything went on until the evening when one musician from the orchestra, a friend of her late brother, called it a black lining for whites. And then she decided: everything! Will Vivaldo stay with her or not, she still will not return to Ellis.
Vivaldo finds it difficult to answer. In the end, he embraces Ida sobbing and silently presses to his chest. So they stand for a long time – like two tortured, unhappy children…