Dubus introduces Massoud Behrani, a former colonel exiled from Iran after the Iranian Revolution. Because his background is military rather than professional, he has not been able to establish a career in the US and works as a trash collector and convenience store clerk. With his savings, he pays the rent on his family's expensive apartment and provides an elegant wedding for his daughter. His fellow, more successful Iranian exiles do not know that he holds low-skilled jobs.
Meanwhile, Kathy Nicolo, a former drug addict who is still recovering from her husband's abrupt abandonment of her, has been evicted from her home, long owned by her family, because of unpaid taxes that the county wrongfully claims she has failed to pay.
When the house is put up for auction, Behrani purchases it, using his son's entire college fund. He plans to renovate the house and then resell it for much more than he originally paid as a first step on the way to establishing himself in real-estate investment. He moves his family from their apartment into the house. Meanwhile, when Kathy moves out, she meets police Deputy Lester Burdon. They hire a lawyer to fight Kathy's wrongful eviction, but although the County admits the error, Behrani insists that he will not return the house unless he receives what it is worth based on his improvements, not merely the amount he paid at auction.
In desperation, Kathy goes to the house and attempts to commit suicide twice, first trying to shoot herself and then overdosing on pills. The Behranis manage to stop her both times and put her in a bedroom to rest. Lester breaks into the house and locks the Behranis in their bathroom at gunpoint until they agree to return the house to Kathy. When Lester takes the Behranis to the county office, Behrani's son, Esmail, retrieves the gun and is shot by authorities. When Behrani finds out in the hospital that his son has died, he is overcome with grief and rage at both Lester and Kathy. He returns to the house to find Kathy still there and attempts to strangle her. Believing Kathy to be dead, he dons his Army uniform and suffocates both himself and his wife, who had been asleep in the bedroom.
Kathy and Lester are arrested and have to await trial. In the novel's final scene, Kathy, unable to speak after her final encounter with Behrani, mimes a request for one more cigarette.