This story of greed and lost moral focus is a study of what happens when moral questions become matters of life and death.
Alex Chapman, a sometime-academic, considers himself an intellectual, a good man who believes he’s had much bad luck and suffering through no fault of his own. He has quarreled most of his adult life with his great-uncle James, and when Alex learns James has a $13 million winning lottery ticket, he sets up a scheme to steal it.
Alex is not a likeable character. He is full of self-pity and, though he teaches a course in ethics, his own moral system is revealed to be very shallow. The reader may have some sympathy for him as his past is revealed, but eventually the impulse is to yell at him to grow up. It is his deluded ego and his actions that lock him into his ultimate fate. There are flashes of goodness in him, flashes of recognition that he could be so much more than he is. The question which creates suspense throughout is whether the ethics that Alex has long pretended to embrace will eventually cause him to take a stand.
Alex’s alter ego is Leo Bourque, a truly odious individual. Alex enlists Leo to help him swindle his uncle out of the lottery ticket, but Alex ends up being totally manipulated by Leo. Alex has mastered the ability to rationalize any moral position but Leo takes him into moral territory even Alex is unequipped to handle.
A weakness of the novel is the author’s hammering home of moral and spiritual truths he feels modern secular man has forgotten. There is a repetitive mockery of intellectuals and lectures about how non-believers inspired by reason rather than faith will become lost souls.