Plot summary
The novel is set in New York towards the end of the Second World War. Its protagonist is a Gentile named Newman, a personnel manager for a large company, who lives with his mother. Newman, though too timid to do much about them, shares the prejudices of his neighbor Fred, who is determined to deal with the "new element" in their neighborhood, particularly a Jewish candy store owner called Finkelstein.
However, a new pair of glasses have an unfortunate effect on Newman, altering his appearance in such a way that he begins to be mistaken for a Jew. He hires a prospective secretary who his boss thinks is an assimilated Jew using a WASP-sounding fake name, and is told he will not get a promised promotion and be moved to an office where fewer people could see him. He is furious about being mistreated and quits; ironically, he later gets a new job at a company where the owner and much of the staff are actually Jewish.
As antisemitism mounts throughout the city and the Christian Front organizes to turn general ill will into action, Newman marries a girl called Gertrude. She has seen antisemitism mobilized at close quarters before, when she lived with the ringleader of an organization that abused Jews in California (someone whose views that the U.S. will soon get rid of all Jews she notes without any editorial comment), and recognizes how risky a position Newman is in when his garbage can, as well as Finkelstein's, is turned over in the night. She has also been mistakenly identified as Jewish, and is angry at this...because she is a Christian and is disgusted that anyone would think she is Jewish, not because she thinks anti-Semitism is wrong and hateful.
Newman's principles and character mean that he would prefer to stand aside while the persecution of Finkelstein continues – his own latent antisemitism tacitly endorses it, while his reticence makes it hard for him to participate. But, accidentally caught up as a victim, non-participation is not an option.
An attempt by Newman to convince Fred and his collaborators of his allegiance to their cause by attending an antisemitic rally results only in his being again taken for a Jew, attacked and ejected. Approached afterwards by Finkelstein, Newman tries to politely sell Finkelstein on the idea of leaving the neighborhood and moving somewhere where he won't be threatened. Finkelstein forcefully tells Newman he won't move: the anti-Semitic forces want to take over the U.S. (confirming what Gertrude told him earlier) and their crusade against Jews doesn't make any sense in that context because Jews comprise a very small percentage of the population.
Finally, Newman and Finkelstein are together attacked in the street by a gang of men, who they fight off. Newman realizes he cannot count on Gertrude and walks away from their marriage, later going to the police to report the attack. Asked by an officer "How many of you people live there?" he declines to correct the mistake, realizing that by accepting it he sets himself against those who have abused him, rather than against their intended targets.