Narrator of the novel, and the chairman of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. Jack lives in Blacksmith, a quiet college town, with his fourth wife, Babette, and four of their children from previous marriages. Jack often worries that he will be found lacking or incompetent, and as such he surrounds himself with things that make him look weighty and dignified by association. Jack, like every American, faces a continuous barrage of health and safety warnings from such sources as the news media and the packaging on the consumer goods he buys. Consequently, Jack is obsessed with the fear of his own death, a persistent dread that becomes magnified by his exposure to a toxic substance. Jack loves his wife, Babette, deeply, finding great comfort in her honesty and strength.
Jack’s wife, and the mother of Wilder and Denise. Loving and caring, with a head of messy blond hair, Babette's sturdy and guileless character proves highly reassuring to Jack, particularly given the secretive, high-strung women he’s been married to in the past. Babette teaches adult education classes and reads to an elderly blind man named Old Man Treadwell. Like her husband, Babette has a deep-seated, acute fear of dying. She keeps this hidden from Jack and secretly begins participating in an experimental drug trial to alleviate her fear. As the treatment progresses, she has frequent memory lapses and becomes increasingly evasive.
Read an in-depth analysis of Babette.
Jack’s awkward, analytical fourteen-year-old son with Janet Savory. Heinrich is dispassionate and skeptical and endlessly contradicts his father. Heinrich was born in the same year Jack founded the Hitler studies department, and he was given a German name in honor of that event.
Project manager responsible for the drug Dylar. Willie Mink conducts experimental tests of the drug from his motel room, trading Dylar for sex. Willie remains a mysterious figure through most of the novel, known only as “Mr. Gray.” When we finally encounter him in the last two chapters of the novel, Willie has gone half-crazy and spends his days staring vacantly at a soundless television. Jack becomes fixated on Willie Mink, partly because he wants revenge for Mink and Babette’s affair and party because he wants to obtain a supply of Dylar for himself.
One of several professors from New York who teach at the College-on-the-Hill. Murray always speaks in an exaggerated academic style and is preoccupied with the deconstruction and analysis of American popular culture. His ambition is to create a department devoted to studying Elvis, much like Jack’s Hitler studies department.
Jack’s German teacher. Solitary and taciturn, Howard lives in the same boardinghouse as Murray.
Jack’s seven-year-old daughter with Dana Breedlove. Steffie is far more sensitive than the other children in her family and has trouble watching television shows where characters get hurt or humiliated.
Babette’s eleven-year-old daughter with Bob Pardee. Denise is a sharp, often bossy girl and continually nags Babette about her health. She is the first person to notice her mother’s memory lapses, and she discovers Babette’s secret supply of Dylar.
Heinrich’s friend, a nineteen-year-old senior at Heinrich’s high school. Orest wants to set a new world record for sitting in a cage with poisonous snakes. He claims to be unafraid of dying, which Jack, with his own powerful fear of death, finds fascinating.
Babette’s six-year-old son, and the youngest child in the family. Wilder never speaks in the novel, and periodically Jack worries about the boy’s slow linguistic development. Nevertheless, in his wordlessness, he remains an essential source of comfort for both Jack and Babette. More than any of the other children, Wilder seems genuinely open to the kind of “psychic data” Murray believes American children are privy to. Wilder has an older full brother, Eugene, though their father remains unnamed in the novel.
Brilliant neuroscientist at the College-on-the-Hill. Winnie helps Jack learn about Dylar and Willie Mink. Jack discovers that she is almost always impossible to find, since she goes out of her way to be unnoticed.
Atheist German nun who treats Jack for his bullet wound. Sister Hermann Marie tells Jack that she doesn’t believe in heaven but that she and the other nuns maintain the illusion of faith for the rest of the world’s sake.
Babette’s father. Vernon is a rough, good-natured man, seemingly unafraid of dying, who works with his hands and knows how to build things. His skill and ability make Jack feel incompetent and less masculine. Vernon drops by unexpectedly for a visit and gives Jack a loaded gun when he leaves.
Chairman of the American environments department at the College-on-the-Hill. Stompanato is a tough, imposing personality who, like Murray, is part of the college’s group of smart, caustic, New York professors.
Jack’s pensive, twelve-year-old daughter from his marriage to Tweedy Bonner. Bee is a worldly, cosmopolitan child, and in this regard she makes Jack highly self-conscious and uncomfortable.
Jack’s ex-wife, and Bee’s mother. Tweedy is remarried to a high-level jungle operative named Malcolm Hunt. Tweedy visits with Jack for a while and confesses that Malcolm’s extended periods spent living abroad under assumed identities make her anxious about her husband’s true identity.
Jack’s ex-wife, and Steffie’s mother. Dana is a contract agent for the CIA who conducts covert drop-offs in Latin America. According to Jack, Dana liked to plot and often got him entangled in domestic and faculty battles.
Jack’s ex-wife, and Heinrich’s mother. Janet now lives in ashram and is known as Mother Devi. Before that, however, she was a foreign-currency analyst for a secret group of advanced theorists.
One of the New York professors at the College-on-the-Hill. Dimitros is a large man and former bodyguard. He is Murray’s principal competitor in Elvis studies, until he dies in a drowning accident.
Babette’s all-American ex-husband.
A convicted killer serving time in a penitentiary. Heinrich plays chess with Tommy Roy Foster via mail.
Elderly blind man, to whom Babette reads tabloids. One day, Old Man Treadwell and his sister, Gladys, go missing for several days. They are later discovered, lost and confused, in a shopping mall.
Sister of Old Man Treadwell. She dies soon after she and her brother get lost in a shopping mall for several days.
A local psychic, called in by the police to help find the missing Treadwell siblings.