In 1916, a young boy, Nathan Longfort, is on the funeral train bearing the body of his grandfather, the Senator, from Washington, D.C., to Knoxville, Tennessee. The memory of this journey will haunt him for the rest of his life. On this trip, he meets the enigmatic Cousin Aubrey, a man of "irregular kinship," the black sheep of the Longfort clan. As the years pass, and Aubrey disappears into the world, Nathan begins to compulsively collect rumors about his faraway life—as Nathan's mother's first true love, a charmer of European society, a Don Juan, a worldly success—and sees it in stinging contrast to his own unfulfilled dreams of becoming an artist. Much later in life, the two men—now old—will meet again.