The novel begins with Stingo, the narrator, who reflects on his life when he was twenty-two years old. In the summer of 1947, he lived in Brooklyn, New York, and held a job at the McGraw-Hill publishing house. Stingo accepted the job because of his ambition to become a writer, but he quickly became disillusioned with the workings of the publishing business and the quality of the manuscripts he was reviewing. Stingo showed off his intellectual pretensions by ruthlessly mocking most of the manuscripts he reviewed. He spent almost all of his time alone and fantasized about how the lives of other New Yorkers must be more stimulating than his own.
Stingo’s career prospects took a turn for the worse when a new editor-in-chief came to work at McGraw-Hill. Stingo nicknamed the editor the Weasel, and the two men did not get along. Within a short time, the Weasel fired him. As Stingo packed up, a colleague named Farrell came to say goodbye to him. Farrell was a disillusioned alcoholic who shared with Stingo that he also once harbored an ambition of being a writer. Farrell lamented the death of his only son, who was killed while serving in World War II. Stingo revealed that he had also served as a Marine during the war. Farrell urged Stingo to pursue his desire to write, and the chapter ends with foreshadowing that Stingo’s life would soon change.
After losing his job, Stingo was initially worried about money, but he soon received a gift that helped him out. Stingo is from the American South and grew up in Virginia. His grandmother once owned two slaves. However, Stingo learned that there was more to his family story. His grandmother had actually owned a third slave whom her father sold. His great-grandfather hid the money from the sale during the Civil War and passed it on to his daughter. When Stingo’s grandmother died, she left the money to her grandchildren, but her instructions were too vague for anyone to know where to find it. Eventually, Stingo’s father found the money because he spent a lot of time going through family papers.
Shortly after Stingo told his father that he had lost his job, Stingo received a letter in reply. In the letter, Stingo’s father expressed his distaste for capitalism and his hopes that African Americans would eventually gain greater equality. However, the main point of the letter was for Stingo’s father to explain that he had uncovered the location of Stingo’s grandmother’s gold coins.
The letter also provided more information about why the third slave was sold. In the 1850s, Stingo’s great-grandfather purchased three slave children: Lucinda, Drusilla, and a boy named Artiste. When Artiste was older, he was accused of making advances toward a white woman. Stingo’s great-grandfather immediately sold Artiste for $800 and buried the money he received because he knew war was on the horizon. However, it was later discovered that Artiste had done nothing wrong, and Stingo’s great-grandfather was tormented by guilt for the rest of his life. Stingo’s father uncovered the money, which had appreciated in value over the years. Divided amongst Stingo and his cousins, Stingo received $500. Stingo’s father also included a copy of the letter that Stingo’s great-grandfather wrote in which the whole story is explained.
With this money in hand, Stingo did not need to get another job immediately and decided to spend the next few months focusing on his writing. He wanted to live cheaply to make the money last as long as possible, so he went to view a room in a boarding house in Brooklyn. Stingo moved in a short time later, intrigued that both the boarding house and the neighborhood were mainly home to Jewish people. On his first day in the boarding house, Stingo was unsuccessfully trying to write when he heard the loud sounds of two people having sex. This was followed a short time later by the sound of a violent argument between a man and a woman in the same room. Stingo encountered another tenant who introduced himself as Morris Fink. Morris explained that the couple who made the noises were Nathan Landau and Sophie Zawistowska. Nathan was a biologist, and Sophie worked as a receptionist in a chiropractor’s office.