In the 1940s, upstate New Yorker Cully Madden, a practicing Catholic partial to James Joyce, begins his army stint at an air corps base in Illinois. The contrast between his bookishness and his agility at fighting provokes enough challenges to spur him to join the corps boxing team. The fact that Cully is white and the rest of the team is black serves corps purposes, too, when the team is set to battle the marines' boxers. On a road trip south for the competition, Cully is introduced to black culture and virulent racial discrimination. Although privileged to eat steak dinners, the team still endures segregated conditions on and off base. Cully develops an affinity for black men, which he realizes he has inherited from his father, who boxed in his youth and also befriended black boxers. As Cully bears witness to the historic inequality of honorable and able men condemned to lesser lives, Kelley injects humor and a blues cadence into Cully's account of spiritually maturing from piety to questioning God's will to acceptance.