Set in 1987. Warren Hays is 40 and works at a University library. He is the great grandson of Will Hays, founder of the Hays Code. Hays graduated with a master’s degree in classics from Notre Dame. He moved to LA after he graduated and tried to win fame as a standup comic. His schtick was a skewed mockery of modernity staked in little history lessons on 17th and 18th century European history. No one thought it was funny. Successful comedians only spoke of pain and depravity. He became disillusioned. After several years, he left LA and was deeply in debt. He returned to work at the library in Notre Dame. He performs a host of oddball jobs. He recovers and restores books. He breaks up fights and kicks perverts out of the men’s room. He drinks strange herbal liquor and eats Brunswick stew from a can. He wears Carhartt jackets and has long greasy hair. At night, he watches movies made during the enforcement of the Hays Code. He wants to learn the art of subtlety and moderation. He lives in a lousy bachelor pad. He owns almost nothing. His mattress is on the floor.
A profoundly, distractingly beautiful woman begins working at the library. When she walks into a room, the whole room invisibly inclines towards her. Her name is Jem. She is recently married. All the men covertly stare at her when they can and make bawdy jokes about taking her to bed. Hays is silent on the matter, though. Jem is modest, but cannot fail to attract the attention of anyone who sees her. She is quiet, kind, but no one can tell if Jem knows how beautiful she is. Months pass. The men who work at the library still joke about her. One day, a young man named Marvin who works at the circulation desk makes a pass at her. Hays wonders whether Jem’s husband will defend her.
Hays reads old Russian and French novels in the evening. One night, while reading The Idiot, he finds a handwritten note in the book. It says, “FD is great, but if you really want to plumb the terrifying depths of the human spirit, call this phone number.” A phone number is listed. Hays thinks it is a joke, but keeps the note. At work, Marvin makes another pass at Jem. Jem says her husband will come in and kill Marvin, but Marvin just laughs. Hays is crushed. He feels bad for Jem, but knows that if he defends her, he will fall in love for her and he feels this would be immoderate and destructive because she is married. She has heard a few of his jokes and found them funny. No one has ever found his jokes funny. Maybe she only laughs at him because she thinks he is pure of heart.
Unsure of the purity of his own soul, Hays calls the phone number. A very mature sounding older gentleman answers the phone. Hays says he wants to plumb the depths of the human spirit. The old man asks Hays why he thinks he’s worthy to do so. Hays asks, “What makes you worthy?” The old man says he isn’t worthy, but that he fell into a knowledge of the human spirit unlike anyone else has ever had. The old man hangs up.
Over the next several weeks, Hays calls the man every so often and tries to convince him he can handle such devastating knowledge of the human spirit. Hays feels he will be helped by it, though he cannot explain why. The old man says he has given this knowledge of the human spirit to other people, and that it has ruined them all. “It could ruin you, too,” he tells Hays, “and I don’t want to ruin more human lives.” Why does he seek help from strangers? He acquired the knowledge from strangers, and the way he acquired the knowledge was deeply shameful and perhaps illegal. This strange knowledge of the depths of the human spirit comes to him regularly, and he is transfixed. He cannot give it up. Hays describes the situation at the library with Jem. This convinces the old man to let him in on his deep knowledge of the human spirit. Hays asks the old man what his name is and the old man says, “Call me Tiresias,” but Hays says he will not because it is silly.
The next day, Tiresias comes to the library and meets Hays. He tells Hays to give him sixty dollars. Hays reluctantly gives Tiresias the money, suspecting a scam. Tiresias is a tired, sad looking man of about fifty. Not actually that old. He is dressed like a ship’s captain. He carries a rucksack full of audio cassette tapes. He gives Hays a tape. Hays is distressed all day at what is on the tape. He thinks it will be something dreadful. Perhaps it is the sound of someone being raped or killed. Jem comments on how bad he looks. He tells her another one of his history jokes and makes her laugh. Before going home to listen to the tape, he concludes he is an awful human being because he is in love with Jem.
He gets home and has a drink of his awful liquor, then puts in the tape. He hears a priest read a script and then a young man begins confessing his sins. The tape is a collection of people confessing their sins to a priest. When one person finishes describing their sins, the tape immediately cuts to the priest reading a pre-confession script again, then another person describing their sins. It is not like anything Hays had heard in the movies. No one says, “I lusted and I stole” All the persons confessing their sins give brutal, ruthless, cruel descriptions of their sins, sparing no details and no dignity to themselves. They beat their children. They are cruel to their kids and their spouses in minute, but staggering ways. Most are weeping before they are done. Hays decides the tape is authentic because no one could make up the things these people are saying. They are too cruel to even imagine, but not cruel in big ways. Minor cruelties. Trivial brutalities. Hays has never considered evil in this way before.
He listens to the tape once, but cannot fall asleep. He is haunted by a woman describing her hatred for her children and how she tries to make them feel unwanted. He imagines he is the little child whom the woman hates. Over the next several months, Tiresias arrives sporadically with a new tape. Hays becomes obsessed with the tapes. He listens to them endlessly. When he listens to people confess their sins, they become his own. He feels he is complicit in their sins because he eavesdrops. At the same time, he also feels as though he is the person whom the sinners have sinned against. Listening to them confess their sin with such erudition and clarity causes Hays to look into his own heart and see how he is truly guilty of the same things, not just guilty through his sympathy. Hays becomes a master at judging himself. Whereas most people sin and confess a single fault, Hays comes to see every sin he commits as a dazzling array of faults. Hays also begins dreaming of Jem; sometimes in his dreams, he is committing the sins from the tapes against her, and sometimes she is committing the sins against him. They eat lunch together occasionally. Jem is very evasive when speaking about her husband, and Hays wonders if he will ever meet the man.
All the while, Hays wonders about the tapes. How old are they? If they are contemporary, where is the church where these things are recorded? They might have been recorded two years ago, ten years ago… who knows? Occasionally, Hays recognizes a person confessing on one tape from a previous tape. A familiar voice. This solves nothing though. Tiresias says he does not know where the tapes come from. Tiresias is such an awful, sad looking man that Hays believes him. Tiresias tells Hays that he receives a single tape in the mail every now and again and it comes postmarked from California or Seattle. He makes copies. Tiresias makes a strange confession. It turns out Tiresias has underplayed the number of people who have access to the tapes. A network of people exist over several states who all are listening to the tapes. Hays discovers that nearly a hundred people now have access to the tapes. Some drop out and Tiresias never hears from them again.
Then one day, Hays gets a new tape and he hears a familiar voice making a confession. After listening several times, he realizes it is Jem. She is not actually married. She only claims this so men will leave her alone. She knows how beautiful she is. She confesses many, many terrible things she has done. Her confession is unusually long. It goes on for more than an hour and she confesses things she has done as far back as age four. Hays does not know why her confession is so long. As he listens, he feels wretched for violating her privacy, but he finds he loves her more after hearing every terrible thing she has done. He feels pity for her. He contemplates going to a priest and confessing his sins, recording it and giving it to Jem. He does not.
When Hays looks at Jem for the first time after hearing her confession, he is too ashamed to meet her gaze. He could easily exploit what he knows about her to win her heart. He could appear as a man who understands her deeply, when in fact, he does not.
Hays tells Tiresias that he knows someone on the tape and Tiresias tells him this is impossible. Hays does not understand why this would be impossible. Tiresias demands Hays tell him who he knows on the tapes, but Hays will not. Hays beats Tiresias in a stairwell of the library, hoping the old man will refuse to give him any more tapes, but it doesn’t work. Tiresias gives Hays his tapes as usual and refuses to accept any money. Tiresias forgives Hays and Hays is strangely discomfited by being forgiven. He takes the forgiveness home with him, but distracts himself with his work instead of dwelling on it.
Hays begins performing at some comedy clubs after having not set foot in one for years. He uses all that he has gleaned from listening to confessions and spins it into painful, cringing, awful comedy. He feels somewhat better for turning tears into laughter. People tell him that his shows make them feel good. Yet, he is conflicted. He begins using his knowledge of Jem’s sins to win her affection. He feels terrible about this. Hays receives another tape with Jem’s confession, though this time the confession is shorter.
Jem is impressed by Hays’ humane, intuitive knowledge of her. She supposes he is a man of immense soul and begins to fall for him. He makes passing comments about life, happiness, sadness… all of which bear witness to her own thoughts. Hays tries to disregard his knowledge of her soul, though he finds he can help her through his unfair knowledge of her sins. That she is understood by another person… this makes her feel safe, comforted.
In the middle of an open mic night, Hays sees Jem in the back of a dark crowd, though she leaves quickly after he has noticed her. Absolutely nothing about his life is mild, measured, moderate, prudent. Hays’ admits to himself that he is unhappy; he is in love with a woman pretending to be married, and the only way he knows she is not married is by listening to her pour out her soul to God.
Then one day, Hays is listening to a new tape when something odd happens. He hears something unusual. A glitch in the tape. All the previous tapes have been edited so that the absolution pronounced after the confession was never heard. But now Hays hears the following:
O Lord God, the salvation of Thy servants, gracious, bountiful and long-suffering, Who repents thee concerning our evil deeds, and desires not the death of a sinner but rather that he should turn away from his wickedness and live: Show Thy mercy now upon Thy servant Gregory, and grant unto him every transgression, whether voluntary or involuntary. Reconcile and unite him unto Thy holy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord and to Him belongs all dominion and majesty, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
He has never heard these words before. Were the people who confessed their sins hearing these words after their confessions all along? Why was the maker of the tapes editing out this part? Hays feels profound relief. Hays phones Tiresias and tells him he is done, he does not need the tapes anymore.
On a Sunday morning, Hays follows Jem to a large cathedral. The cathedral seems very full to Hays and he wonders if there is a special occasion for so many people. Perhaps eight or nine hundred persons are in attendance. Hays stands in a crowd only a few feet from Jem, though she does not see him. When the service is over, Hays enters the confessional and feels under the seat. He finds a small handheld tape recorder. He puts the tape recorder in his pocket and walks out, across the street to a park. He removes the tape which is already inside, then replaces it with another tape. He records bird song for two hours. He switches the voice-activator off and places the tape recorder back where he found it.
With his car fully packed, Hays stops at Jem’s house. He tells her he is leaving. He tells her he has sinned. He tells her that he has wronged her in ways he cannot explain, and that he is ashamed of himself, and that he needs to go confess his sins for a long time. He tells her he is going back to Los Angeles. He tells her he loves her. He tells her he will not be back. He hands her a tape.