Set in a dugout in Aisne in 1918, a group of British officers, led by the mentally disintegrating young officer Stanhope, variously await their fate.
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A nameless, pill-popping drifter girl steps off a bus and into a New Jersey neighborhood bar owned by two middle-age brothers, Jimmy & Victor. She quickly befriends older brother, Victor––a good-natured lummox whose mind was affected by a childhood accident. The mysterious “Girl” soon upsets the delicate balance of the brother’s lives while bringing both trouble and new life into their resigned world and town.
When the New York journalist Jake Bridges catches his girlfriend with another guy, he goes to Atlantic City to drink himself to oblivion. He is saved from a bar brawl by a small-time mobster Frankie, and Jake falls in love with Frankie’s girlfriend Melissa. Jake soon also joins Frankie in his money-collecting duties.
Coleman Silk is a worldly and admired professor who loses his job after unwittingly making a racial slur. To clear his name, Silk writes a book about the events with his friend and colleague Nathan Zuckerman, who in the process discovers a dark secret Silk has hidden his whole life. All the while, Silk engages in an affair with Faunia Farley, a younger woman whose tormented past threatens to unravel the layers of deception Silk has constructed.
The story picks up at the point where “The Robe” ends, following the martyrdom of Diana and Marcellus. Christ’s robe is conveyed to Peter for safe-keeping, but the emperor Caligula wants it back to benefit from its powers. Marcellus’ former slave Demetrius seeks to prevent this, and catches the eye of Messalina, wife to Caligula’s uncle Claudius. Messalina tempts Demetrius, he winds up fighting in the arena, and wavers in his faith.