The book's theme is mortality: it analyzes how people might react to the chance to have a dead relative back for a day.
The book tells the story of Charley "Chick" Benetto, a former baseball player who encounters a myriad of problems with his career, finances, family and alcohol abuse. This leads him to become suicidal. Charles goes on a drunken rampage and decides he is going to end his life in his old home town, but when he misses the exit, he turns around driving down the wrong side of the highway causing an accident, Benetto flees to his old home– his suicide attempt an apparent failure – to see his mother, who had died eight years prior.
Benetto returns to his old family home, and spends one more day with his mother, where in a number of previously unknown factors related to his difficult childhood and troubled relationship with his father are revealed to him. His mother assists him in resolving his issues and getting his life back on track. The day ends when Benetto regains consciousness at the scene of the accident in a police officer's arms.
The book's epilogue describes how Benetto was inspired by his experience to quit drinking and reconcile with family, including his daughter, Maria, before his death five years later. At the end, Maria is revealed to have been the narrator of the story.