The novel opens with Cy (Cyril) Parks' boyhood in Morecambe. His father died days before he was born: his mother, Reeda, pursues two complementary trades -- running a boarding-house for tuberculosis patients during the summer, and providing illegal abortions in the off-season -- to make ends meet. Cy grows up familiar with blood and suffering (there's a surprisingly beautiful scene where he tries to read his fortune in the swirls of blood in a patient's basin) and accustomed to showmanship, the lifeblood of the resort.
His artistic ability is spotted by Eliot Riley, an alcoholic tattoo artist with a reputation as one of the best who takes Cy on as apprentice. It's not an easy ride. Eliot is a slave to the bottle, prone to black moods and violent behaviour. But he has a lot to teach, and Cy is eager to learn.
Reeda and Riley dead, Cy turns his back on Morecambe: he emigrates to America, and sets up a booth in the heart of the circus -- Coney Island, a carnival underworld populated with immigrants and the displaced, with misfits and freaks and outcasts. Cy -- now The Electric Michelangelo -- fits right in. Confident in his art (and it's clear, both from the technical detail of his work and from the way he's driven by, transformed by, a channel for it) he finds others who share, or at least comprehend, his vocation. Something of a loner by nature (we get the feeling that he doesn't give his heart lightly, and both Reeda and Riley have left him walking-wounded) he finds friends and colleagues.
And then there's Grace.
There was something unholy about her from the beginning, that guile, the heretical bile that lifted in her mouth when she spoke, the gall in the gut of her words, the retch of her dark hair, the very peccancy of her sex, that thousand-fanged stare, and she might have been his, once, but for herself, but for her cloven-kolo self in the centre of her being.
Grace is probably not her name, but it's the name she's chosen. (Significantly, she always refers to Cy by his tradename). She's a European woman of indeterminate origin, a bareback rider (her horse sometimes shares her Brooklyn apartment, in the same block as Cy) who comes to Cy with one clear and specific request: she wants to be made into the Lady of Eyes, to be tattooed with the image of an eye (green, edged in black) repeated over and over on every inch of her skin.
Cy obliges, and almost incidentally falls in love. It's not as though there haven't been women before, plenty of 'em, aroused by endorphins and acutely aware of their newly-tattooed bodies. Grace is different. They aren't lovers in the physical sense, but there is far more sense of Cy's engagement with her than with anyone since Riley's death. And although he doesn't make love to her in any of the usual ways, perhaps the physical act of transforming her body, the intimate engagement of pain, is another form of eroticism.
Grace, complete, is a work of art. And art can be destroyed. Riley's death follows vengeful violence: Grace survives the attack on her, but it transforms her as much as or more than Cy's art -- and against her will. Her return to Cy is the pivot-point of the novel, the moment at which everything that's made him the man he is (Reena, Riley, the consumptives, the tattooing) comes together in a single night. The events of that night occur offstage: we have only Cy's memories, later, to show us what happened. It's enough.
As coda, the novel shows us Cy's return to Morecambe, years later. He's served in the war, and walks with a limp: he is alone: he's coming back to Riley's empty house. Yet it's not an ending, and not a decline: 'his heart was densely occupied and his soul was lying fallow', and if beneath it all he's waiting, still he's out in the changing world.