The main character, Theopolis P. Bezelbottom, is the scion of a wealthy family of old-fashioned robber barons and leaders of industry. Theo just wants to live an indolent, irresponsible existence, doing as little as possible to maintain his common-law wife, children and girlfriends in an easygoing life. He expects to inherit the main part of one of the major railroads of the United States as well as control of Hawgwaller, an entire county in Appalachia, and he is trying to keep his position while doing the least amount of work. However, the patriarch and boss of the family, Uncle Throckmorton P. Bezelbottom, who controls just about everything, now expects Theo to take an active responsibility in the running of the county. At the same time his other uncle, Aloysius P. Bezelbottom, fully expects Theo to come up with a modern streamlined steam locomotive for the two-bit third-rate feeder railroad that the county operates. Theo knows that he will lose his comfortable position in the family unless he succeeds in all the tasks he is now expected to perform. If he does not perform, he will lose his wealth and favored position in the family and be drafted into the army just as World War Two is about to break out.