Simons Everson Manigault ('You say it "Simmons". I'm a rare one-m Simons') lives with his mother, an eccentric professor known as the Duchess, on an isolated strip of South Carolina coast. Convinced that her son can be a writer of genius, the Duchess has immersed Simons in the literary classics since birth and has given him free rein to gather materials in such spots as the Baby Grand, a local black nightclub. Although possessed of a vocabulary and sophistication beyond his years, Simons feels the normal adolescent bewilderment about the behaviour of his parents. His conventional father, the Progenitor, has recently left the family in a dispute over Simons' upbringing and has moved to nearby Hilton Head, where he would like to see his son raised in the orthodox surroundings of condominiums, country clubs and private schools. So the Duchess brings in Taurus, an enigmatic father-surrogate who tutors the boy in the art of watching the world without presumption.