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The protagonist and narrator, Jack is the chair of the department of Hitler Studies and the College-on-the-Hill. Sharing a home with his wife Babette and their four children from different marriages, Jack is struck with self-doubt and constantly questions his own abilities as a scholar. He relies on appearance far more than substance, even his own field of study is a contrivance designed to create the appearance of dignified academic work. He is something of a modern everyman in that he is a victim of the constant onslaught of media images about health and life. As a result of this, Jack develops a morbid fear of death. This fear is compounded when Jack is exposed to a toxic chemical during an airborne toxic event. Jack relies heavily on the inner strength of his wife Babette.
Jack’s wife, Babette is the mother of two of the children in the novel, Wilder and Denise. She is a source of stability for Jack with her down to earth demeanor. Babette teaches adult education classes. One of her other activities is to read to an elderly blind man named Old Man Treadwell. We find that Babette conceals her own morbid fears of dying and she withholds this from Jack. Eventually it is revealed that Babette is taking and experimental drug that is supposed to cure her of her fear of dying.
Jack’s son from a previous marriage and a bookish 14-year old. His cold demeanor and contradictory nature operates as a counter to Jack’s anxious nature. He has the unlikely German name because he was born the year Jack founded the department of Hitler studies.
Murray Jay Siskind
Murray teaches in the American Environments Department. This is a scholarly department of popular culture. Murray is constantly providing deconstruction and observations of common aspects of life. He deconstructs the supermarket, for example. His glib manner and ironic points of view make him something of caricature of an academic. His great ambition is to found a department devoted to the study of Elvis.
Jack’s daughter from a previous marriage. At 7 years old, Steffie is an extremely sensitive child. She is disturbed by television shows and cries easily.
Babette’s 11-year old daughter from a previous marriage. She is crucial to the plot because she is the one who notices that Babette is experiencing memory losses, and Denise is the one who discovers the Dylar pills.
Six-year old son of Babette, he is the youngest child. He never speaks which leads Jack to express concern about his developmental abilities. He seems to be a comfort to Jack and Babette. His silent and pensive demeanor operates in contrast to the anxiety of the adults.
Babette’s father. Vernon is something of an old-fashioned rough guy. He is unconcerned with the sensitivities of the other characters. More of a man’s man, he makes Jack uncomfortable and worry about his own masculinity. Vernon gives Jack the gun that he later uses to attempt to kill Willie Mink.
The source for Babette’s Dylar pills. Willie is a project manager for the company which manufactures the drug. He trades Dylar for sex with Babette. Early he is known as “Mr.Gray,” he is a shady character. Jack becomes obsessed with Mink because he wants revenge for the affair he had with Babette and because he wants his own supply of Dylar.
One of Jack’s colleagues at the College-on-the-Hill. Winnie is a neuroscientist. She helps Jack identify Dylar and she also helps him discover Willie Mink.