Dean Corde is a man of position and authority at a Chicago university. He accompanies his wife to Bucharest where her mother, a celebrated figure, lies dying in a state hospital. As he tries to help her grapple with an unfeeling bureaucracy, news filters through to him of problems left behind in Chicago.
A student had been murdered and Corde had directed that charges be pressed against two black youths, but controversy and pressure are mounting against the university administration.
Further, a series of articles written by Corde has offended influential Chicagoans whom he had counted as friends. Corde is troubled: at home the centre is not holding firm, in Eastern Europe authority is cruel and dehumanising.