Prairie Center, a small Midwestern town, plays host to the adventures of four teenagers born into a very idiosyncratic family — a family in which the children have no first names and the father can't walk or drive without whistling.
Two of the kids, Red and Guy (nicknames), wanting to see the West Coast, hitchhike across the country. They do not reach their destination. Instead, after a terrifying trip stowed away in a lady trucker's semi, they end up staying in Boston with two young women who initiate them into intimacies wilder than any locker room lie the boys ever imagined.
Reminiscing, the narrator observes: "Looking back on my teenage years, I know what I did in the back seat of the Black Baron, what I discovered beneath the water tower, and what I experienced upon the bed of a houseboat shaped my adult life more than the subjects taught in any classroom."



Anita Anderson, an artistically gifted youngster, dreams of becoming a concert pianist. Determined to succeed, she persists with music lessons and piano practices, though missing much of the fun reported by her friends. Suddenly, she finds herself caught in the sexual passions of an adolescent triangle, loved by two young men who happen to be brothers. Finally, she escapes from their obsessions by enrolling in a conservatory.
During college she discovers a deep obsession of her own, a fascination with the compositions of Claude Debussy. For her senior recital, she performs La Cathédrale engloutie, and then graduates with honors. Now confident of succeeding as a performing artist, she marries one of her high school sweethearts.
She wakes up from her honeymoon, however, with her dream destroyed forever. After hearing the details of an automobile accident, and told she will no longer have the dexterity to be a concert artist, Anita Anderson struggles to accept herself as Annie Card. Learning to live with new limitations, Annie gradually comes to realize that her life, like a piano, has hidden strings.