Julian, at the open of the story, has returned home to his Montauk, Long Island home, occupied by him and his sister, Loretta. This scene seems to find him tidying up family business, maybe researching his next book (he is studying a map) or perhaps about to set out on his next journey and is leaving his home (he thinks to himself as he looks out of his study windows at a pond that he will “miss these things”).
But it soon becomes apparent that his melancholy leads to a more final destination as he rows a yellow boat with peeling paint to the middle of the pond just far enough that he will appear small and distant enough that his sister can’t tell what he is doing or get to him before he can finish what he has set out to do. Once there, he slits his wrists and hangs his arms in the water.
The main mystery, from this point on is why? Julian’s sister, Loretta and his best friend, Philip Anders are left to speculate as to the reasons that Julian, who had always seemed so steadfast, would take his own life. While recalling a trip to Rome with Julian, Loretta recalls viewing the little piazza, the Campidogilo that looks so square, but is in actuality only designed that way by Michelangelo as a trick of perspective.
“It’s distortion that creates perfection,” Julian had said. Was Julian’s life also a distortion and only designed by him to seem like perfection?” The only clues are the map he was studying before rowing to the middle of the pond - a map of Argentina with a red circle drawn around an obscure village – and the dedication in the front of Julian’s first book from years ago that Philip now pondered the meaning of; "For Philip, sole witness to my crime."
Philip, the son of a mid-level U.S. State Dept. functionary – as was Julian’s father, who died young – and a literary critic and book reviewer who had purposely chosen a slow-paced, unremarkable life – as he states late in the book,”…it’s mostly the fact that I don’t have any talent, …I don’t sing or act or play a musical instrument. I’ve read the great books, but I couldn’t never write even a bad one.” - while his friend chose to travel the four corners of the earth, rubbing elbows with evil and journeying into “the heart of darkness.” "Julian had a lot of feeling," says an old literary friend, "but too much of it was morbid. . . . Darkness was the only thing he knew." And Philip thinks, "It was evil he was after, I could tell, some core twist in the scheme of things."