White Noise describes an academic year in the life of its narrator, Jack Gladney, a college professor in a small American town. The novel itself can be hard to follow, since Jack spends much of his time detailing seemingly inconsequential conversations, and several events in the novel have no direct impact on the action of the story. Despite these tangents, a general plotline emerges from the narrative.
Jack teaches at a school called the College-on-the-Hill, where he serves as the department chair of Hitler studies. He lives in Blacksmith, a quiet college town, with his wife, Babette, and four of their children from earlier marriages: Heinrich, Steffie, Denise, and Wilder. Throughout the novel, various half-siblings and ex-spouses drift in and out of the family’s home. Jack loves Babette very much, taking great comfort in her honesty and openness and what he sees as her reassuring solidness and domesticity.
Jack invented the discipline of Hitler studies in 1968, and he acknowledges that he capitalizes on Hitler’s importance as a historical figure, which lends Jack an air of dignity and significance by association. Over the course of his career, Jack has consciously made many decisions in order to strengthen his own reputation and add a certain heft to his personal identity: when he began the department, for example, he added an initial to his name to make it sound more prestigious. Yet he is continually aware of the fact that his aura and persona were deliberately crafted, and he worries about being exposed as a fraud. To his great shame, Jack can’t speak German, so when a Hitler conference gets scheduled at the College-on-the-Hill, Jack secretly begins taking German lessons.
Hitler studies shares a building with the American environments department, which is mainly staffed by what Jack refers to as the “New York émigrés,” a tough, sarcastic group of men obsessed with American popular culture. Jack befriends one of these professors, a former sportswriter named Murray Jay Siskind. Murray has come to Blacksmith to immerse himself in what he calls “American magic and dread.” Murray finds deep significance in ordinary, everyday events and locations—particularly the supermarket, which he claims contains massive amounts of psychic data.
The majority of the novel is structured around two major plot points: the airborne toxic event, and Jack’s discovery of his wife’s participation in an experimental study of a new psychopharmaceutical called Dylar.
One day, Jack finds his son Heinrich on the roof of the house, watching a billowing cloud of smoke rise into the sky. Heinrich tells him that a train car has derailed and caught on fire, releasing a poisonous toxic substance into the air. The entire town of Blacksmith is ordered to evacuate to an abandoned Boy Scout camp. While at the evacuation camp, Jack learns that he’s been exposed to Nyodene D., a lethal chemical. The technician tells Jack that the chemical lasts thirty years in the human body and that in fifteen years they’ll be able to give him a more definitive answer about his chances for survival. Perhaps due to the vagueness of this explanation, Jack becomes preoccupied with the idea that he has now been marked for death. The townspeople remain evacuated from their homes for nine more days. After the toxic cloud disappears, the sunsets in Blacksmith become shockingly beautiful.
Meanwhile, Babette’s daughter Denise discovers a vial of pills, labeled Dylar, which her mother has been taking in secret. Babette evades both Denise’s and Jack’s inquiries, so Jack takes a pill to Winnie Richards, a scientist at College-on-the-Hill. After analyzing the pill, Winnie tells Jack that the drug is an incredibly advanced kind of psychopharmaceutical. Jack finally confronts Babette about the pills. In tears, she tells him that Dylar is an experimental, unlicensed drug, which she believes can cure her of her obsessive fear of dying. In order to get samples of the drug, Babette admits to having had an affair with the Dylar project manager, a man she refers to only as Mr. Gray. In return, Jack confesses to Babette about his fatal Nyodene D. exposure. His fear of death now greater than ever, Jack goes in search of Babette’s remaining Dylar pills, only to find that Denise has thrown them all away.
Jack begins to have problems sleeping. He goes in for frequent medical checkups and becomes preoccupied with clearing all the unused clutter out of his home. He stays awake late into the night to watch the children sleep. One evening, Wilder wakes him up, and Jack finds his father-in-law, Vernon Hickey, asleep in the backyard. Vernon, a tough, aging handyman, has come by for a surprise visit. Before he leaves, Vernon secretly gives Jack a handgun. Shortly afterward, Jack confides in Murray about his acute death fixation. Murray proposes the theory that killing someone else can alleviate the fear of death. Jack begins to think of the gun at odd moments, eventually bringing it to class with him one afternoon.
On his way home from campus, Jack runs into Winnie Richards, who tells him that she read an article on the project manager responsible for Dylar. She tells Jack the man’s name, Willie Mink, and the approximate location of the motel he’s now living in. Armed with his gun, Jack finds Willie Mink, disheveled and half-crazy, in the same motel room where Mink conducted his affair with Babette. Jack plans to kill him, and, after a brief conversation, he pulls out his gun and shoots Mink twice. In an attempt to make it look like a suicide, Jack places the gun in Mink’s hand, only to be shot in the wrist by Mink a moment later. Overcome by a sense of humanity, Jack drives Mink to the nearest hospital—which is run by atheist German nuns—and saves his life.
Jack returns home and watches the children sleep. Later that day, Wilder rides his tricycle across the highway and miraculously survives, an event that finally allows Jack to let go of his fear of death and obsession with health and safety hazards. Jack, Babette, and Wilder take in the spectacular sunsets from the overpass. Jack closes the novel with a description of the supermarket, which has rearranged its aisles, throwing everyone into a state of confusion.
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