Bobby Dupea works in an oil field in Kern County, California. He spends most of his time with his girlfriend Rayette, a waitress who has dreams of singing country music, or with his friend, fellow oil worker Elton, with whom he bowls, gets drunk, and philanders. While Bobby acts the part of a blue-collar laborer, he is secretly a former classical pianist who comes from an upper-class family of musicians.
When Bobby gets Rayette pregnant and Elton is arrested, Bobby quits his job and goes to Los Angeles, where his sister Partita, also a pianist, is making a recording. Partita tells him that their father, from whom Bobby is estranged, has suffered two strokes, and urges him to return to the family home in Washington.
Rayette threatens to kill herself if Bobby leaves her, so he reluctantly asks her along. Driving north, they pick up two stranded gay women headed for Alaska, Terry and Palm. The latter launches into a memorable backseat monologue about environmental “filth” and “crap” (consumerism). The four are thrown out of a restaurant after Bobby gets into a sarcastic argument with an obstinate waitress who refuses to accommodate his meal order.
Embarrassed by Rayette’s lack of polish, Bobby registers her in a motel before driving alone to the family home on an island in Puget Sound. He finds Partita giving their father a haircut, and the old man seems completely oblivious to him. At dinner, Bobby meets Catherine Van Oost, a young pianist engaged to his amiable brother Carl, a violinist. Despite personality differences, Catherine and Bobby are immediately attracted to each other and later have sex in her room.
Rayette runs out of money at the motel and comes to the Dupea estate unannounced. Her presence creates an awkward situation, but when a pompous family friend ridicules her, Bobby comes to her defense. Storming from the room in search of Catherine, he discovers his father’s male nurse giving Partita a massage. He picks a fight with the very strong nurse, who easily subdues him.
Bobby tries to persuade Catherine to go away with him, but she declines, telling him he cannot ask for love when he does not love himself, or anything at all. After trying to talk to his unresponsive father, Bobby leaves with Rayette. Shortly into the trip, they stop for gas, and while Rayette goes into a diner for coffee, Bobby abandons her, hitching a ride on a truck headed north.