John Cotter returns reluctantly to the smug New England town from where he had escaped via the G.I. Bill and foreign study fellowships. His older and much hated brother Bruce is dying of a brain tumor, and his possessive mother and stunned father requested John's presence. Upon his return he discovers what sort of person he could be through the love of a girl who made an unfortunate marriage. He also is affected by finding and reading his brother's secret diary, through his parents' reactions to Bruce's dying state, through his friendship for the town bum and through the events leading up to and culminating in the violence and fury of a forest fire.