In Nick Faustino's own mind, he's the archetypal American underdog: a young man determined to escape a troubled past and make a new and better life for himself relying only on talent, luck, and single-minded ambition. And so far, his luck has held out. But four years after fleeing his abusive father's house in the night to seek his fortunes, enrolling in a state university music program his father would never knowingly have let him enter, Nick finds his escape route unexpectedly blocked when he's denied admission to graduate school and his financial aid begins to dry up.
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Taking a mysterious LSD-like drug at a haze-filled college party, Nick wanders away from the crowd and encounters or hallucinates an encounter—he can't be sure which—with a black dog that transforms into a stranger with a perpetually shifting face. The stranger introduces himself as Mr. M. and claims to have the power to change Nick's life forever, to make his most cherished fantasies reality at a price that barely amounts to more than a philosophical proposition: only the tiniest shard of his human soul.
When Nick takes the deal in a moment of irony, his fortunes really do begin to take a dramatic turn for the better. He meets and becomes romantically entangled with a beautiful young woman named Margaret, who reveals herself to be the daughter of a famous film producer. Nick's mind reeling with vivid fantasies of Tinseltown glamor, he's not sure what to believe anymore.
The once bright line between reality and delusion only gets blurrier in the whirlwind of changes that follows as Nick rises rapidly to the top of the Hollywood heap, with his new father-in-law's influence to propel him into a wildly successful career as a film soundtrack producer. But when Margaret launches a new career of her own as a nightclub singer, bringing home a cocaine habit in the bargain, Nick's jealousy and workaholism conspire to undo his comfortable new life.
Haunted, professionally blacklisted, and personally ruined after disastrous confrontations with both Margaret's father and his own, Nick's last chance at the escape he's always dreamed of comes when he's given the impossible challenge of producing the soundtrack to a film he's not allowed to see.