Dhalgren is the story of the Kid, a nameless wanderer in a post-apocalyptic world. The bulk of the Kid's journey is concerned with reaching and exploring the city of Bellona, a metropolis afflicted with power outages, fires, looting, gang warfare, and infectious boredom and insanity. The novel's plot is largely a series of random events and culminates in an apparent psychotic break on the Kid's part, the narrative devolving into incoherence.
In a forest somewhere outside the city, the protagonist meets a woman and they have sex. After, he tells her that he has "lost something"—he cannot remember his name. She leads him to a cave and tells him to enter. Inside, he finds long loops of chain fitted with miniature prisms, mirrors, and lenses. He dons the chain and leaves the cave, only to find the woman in the middle of a field, turning into a tree. Panicked, he flees. Many characters in the novel wear the same sort of “optic chain”; all are loath to discuss how they came to do so. On a nearby road, a passing truck stops to pick him up. The trucker, hauling artichokes, drops him off at the end of a suspension bridge leading across the river to Bellona.
As he crosses the bridge in the early morning darkness, the young man meets a group of women leaving the city. They ask him questions about the outside world and give him a weapon: a bladed“orchid,” worn around the wrist with its blades sweeping up in front of the hand.
Once inside Bellona, an engineer, Tak Loufer, who was living a few miles outside of the city when the initial destruction happened, meets and befriends him. Tak has moved to Bellona and stayed there ever since. Upon learning that he cannot remember his name, Tak gives him a nickname—the Kid. Throughout the novel he is also referred to as "Kid", "Kidd", and often just "kid." Next Tak takes Kid on a short tour of the city. One stop is at a commune in the city park, where Kid sees two women reading a spiral notebook. When Kid looks at it, we see what he reads: The first page contains, word-for-word, the first sentences of Dhalgren . As he reads further, however, the text diverges from the novel's opening.
In Chapter II, "The Ruins of Morning", Kid returns to the commune the next day and receives the notebook from Lanya Colson, one of the two women from the evening before. Shortly they become lovers. Their relationship lasts throughout the book. We meet or learn about several other characters, including George Harrison, a local cult hero and rumoured rapist; Ernest Newboy, a famous poet visiting Bellona by invitation of Roger Calkins, publisher and editor of the local newspaper, The Bellona Times ; Madame Brown, a psychotherapist; and, later in the novel, Captain Michael Kamp, an astronaut who, some years before, was in the crew of a successful moon landing.
The notebook Kid receives already has writing throughout, but only on the right hand pages. The left hand pages are blank. Glimpses of the text in the notebook, however, are extremely close to passages in Dhalgren itself, as if the notebook were an alternate draft of the novel. Other passages are verbatim from the final chapter of Dhalgren . It is here in Chapter II that Kid begins using the blank pages of the notebook to compose poems. The novel describes the process of creating the poems—the emotions and the mechanics of the writing itself—at length and several times. We never see the actual poems, however, in their final form. Kid soon revises or removes any line that does appear in the text.
The third and longest chapter, "House of the Ax", involves Kid's interactions with the Richards family: Mr. Arthur Richards, his wife Mary Richards, their daughter June (who may or may not have been raped publicly by George Harrison, whom she is now fixated on), and son Bobby. Through Madame Brown they hire Kid to help them move from one apartment to another in the mostly-abandoned Labry Apartments. Led by Mary Richards, they are "keeping up appearances." Mr. Richards leaves every day to go to work—though no office or facility in the city seems to be in operation—while Mrs. Richards acts as though there's nothing truly disastrous happening in Bellona. By some force of will, she causes almost everyone who comes into contact with her to play along. While carrying a carpet to the elevator, June backs Bobby into an open elevator shaft, where he falls to his death. There is reason to believe that June did this intentionally after Bobby threatened to reveal her relationship with George Harrison to the family.
The third chapter is also where successful poet Ernest Newboy befriends Kid. Newboy takes an interest in Kid's poems and mentions them to Roger Calkins. By the end of the chapter, Calkins is preparing to print a book of Kid's poems.
As the novel progresses, Kid falls in with the scorpions, a loose-knit gang, three of whom have severely beaten him earlier in the book. Almost accidentally, Kid becomes their leader. (Much of this suggests the American "mythical folk hero," Billy the Kid, whom Delany used in his earlier, Nebula Award-winning novel, The Einstein Intersection .) Denny, a 15-year-old scorpion, becomes Kid's and Lanya's lover, so that the relationship with Lanya turns into a lasting three-way sexual linkage. Kid also begins writing things other than poems in the notebook, keeping a journal of events and his thoughts.
In Chapter VI, "Palimpsest", Calkins throws a party for Kid and his book, Brass Orchids, at Calkins's sprawling estate. At Calkins's suggestion, Kid brings along twenty or thirty friends: the scorpion "nest." While Calkins himself is absent from the gathering, there are extended descriptions of the interactions between what is left of Bellona's high society and, in effect, a street gang. At the party, Kid is interviewed by William (later passages of the book suggest William's last name is "Dhalgren," but this is never confirmed).
In the concluding Chapter VII, "The Anathemata: a plague journal", bits of the whole now and again appear to be laid out. Shifting from the omniscient viewpoint of the first six chapters, this chapter comprises numerous journal entries from the notebook, all of which appear to be by Kid. Several passages from this chapter have, however, already appeared verbatim earlier in the novel when Kid reads what was already in the notebook—written when he received it. In this chapter rubrics run along beside many sections of the main text, mimicking the writing as it appears in the notebook. (In the middle of this chapter, a rubric running contains the following sentence: I have come to to wound the autumnal city. ) Recalling Kid's entry into the city, the final section contains a near paragraph-for-paragraph echo of his initial confrontation with the women on the bridge. This time, however, the group leaving is almost all male, and the person entering is a young woman who says almost exactly what Kid did himself at the beginning of his stay in Bellona.
The story ends:
But I still hear them walking in the trees: not speaking. Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of
the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland into the hills, I have come to
As with Finnegans Wake , the unclosed closing sentence can be read as leading into the unopened opening sentence, turning the novel into an enigmatic circle.