On a school excursion to New York, a small group of eleven year old children are introduced to the American way of life. A hurried business man, constantly on the phone or bothered by his secretary, gives a hasty explanation of the stock market, and what it means to 'purchase a piece of America'. The children are suitably awed, especially when their excursion moves from theory to practise with the purchase of one stock from a communal kitty.
One child, JR, is particularly enamoured with the whole process. He asks complicated questions about futures, buybacks, depreciations, interest, tax write-offs and more, flustering and intriguing the man in charge of the tour around the company. JR is so curious, in fact, that upon arriving home, he begins to study and plan ways to make his piece of America work for him.
He meets up with Edward Bast, a struggling composer, and they strike a deal. JR will be the thinking man of the operation, Bast - as an adult - will be the face of the company. Soon, Bast is traveling back and forth from paper mill to Indian reserve to banquet to meeting room as JR creates an empire from 'worthless' stock and inventory obtained through mail order and telephone deals.
JR is written almost entirely in dialogue. People speak, radios chatter, conversations begin and end and trail off, some in the main focus of the novel, such as Rhoda and Bast's discussions in the increasingly cluttered apartment he lives in, some off to the side, little snippets finding their way into the book, shedding light on minor characters or putting a different perspective on what is currently happening. Gaddis, as always, writes flawless dialogue that in no way reads like the 'perfect' diction of most novels, instead having trailing sentences, unfinished words and thoughts, and poor punctuation. When speaking, a character is almost never identified, but through Gaddis' grasp of speech, it is generally pretty easy to tell who is who and what is going on. There are large paragraphs of description scattered about, but these generally serve as bookends to conversations between characters.
The novel JR is an extremely interesting look at the world of finance. Seen through the eyes of the oblivious musician Bast, we are horrified as JR's empire grows and grows, always obeying the law, always being correct and accurate, but at the same time, perverting the true spirit of business and money. Perhaps because he is eleven, JR is unable to see the companies he buys, sells, underwrites and reconstructs as actual tangible realities, the employees are little more than vast bottomless money pits in terms of salaries to him, and nothing is sacred. He has no understanding of the realities of what he is accomplishing, all he is concerned with is, 'If you are going to play, play to win.'