The story takes place in the not too distant future where an exploitative talk-show host, Jack Barron, gradually uncovers a conspiracy concerning an immortality treatment and the methods used in that treatment.
The future world portrayed in this book is chaotic and self-regulating, and Spinrad shows a future where greater freedom allows interaction via electronic democracy to bring about good results.
The "Bug Jack Barron" show begins Wednesday evening with an on-air call from Rufus W. Johnson, who claims that the Foundation for Human Immortality refused to accept his assets as payment for a Freezer contract. Rufus accuses the Foundation of being a racist organization, unwilling to offer Freezer contracts to African Americans even if they have the $500,000 required payment.
Jack Barron is appalled to hear this and makes several live calls using his studio Vidphone to hear all sides of Mr. Johnson's claim. He first calls Benedict Howards, but is told that he is unavailable. Jack is transferred to John Yarborough, Public Relations Director for the Foundation. Barron quickly dismisses Yarborough's counter-claims, and then calls the Governor of Mississippi, Lukas Greene. The Governor feels the Foundation is not only racist, but destined to abuse rights of one kind or another if they succeed in getting their Freezer Utility Bill through Congress. Should the bill pass, the Foundation would gain monopoly status. To stop this injustice, Greene supports a Public Freezer system, open to all Americans.
Hoping not to anger the FCC (influenced by Benedict Howards and his supporters in Congress), Barron calls Senator Theodore Hennering, a supporter of Benedict Howards and his Freezer Utility bill. However, even though Barron gives the Senator ample chance to defend the Foundation and the Utility bill, the Senator appears nervous and does a very poor job convincing Barron and his audience that the Foundation is not a racist organization.
The following day, Howards visits Jack in his office. They exchange casual threats to destroy each other, after which Howards requests Jack's support for his Freezer Utility bill in Congress. Jack is insulted by this and refuses, but Howards continues by offering Jack a free Freezer Contract and immortal life. Though tempted, Jack refuses the bribe. Howards gives Jack more time to think about it, and leaves Jack to consider the offer.
Howards later meets with his head of Personnel Research, to see if they can find information of any incidents in Jack Barron's life that can be used to either coerce him to cooperate, or to discredit him publicly. From that meeting, Howards deduces that Jack and Sara (his ex-wife) are still in love. He believes he can exploit that relationship to his benefit. Shortly afterwards, Howards calls Sara to his office, where he offers her a free Freezer contract if she can get Jack to agree to the bribe. Sara is appalled by this. As part of the Social Justice Coalition (SJC), she despises Benedict Howards, but suddenly considers that it might work in her favor. Her plan is to tell Jack that Howards coerced her into service. That fact would infuriate Jack enough to destroy Howards, and allow them to rekindle their relationship. Back together, Sara dreams about being frozen together with Jack, and being revived together after an immortality treatment has been discovered.
Upon waking up the next morning, Jack Barron receives a call from the Governor of California, Gregory Morris. To Jack's utter surprise, Morris suggests that Jack consider running as the next President of the United States. By having Jack as a candidate, Morris hopes to unify the SJC and the Republican party on a single political platform. He feels this is the only way to win against the Democratic party, even though he personally finds Jack and the SJC repulsive. Jack turns down the offer, in a derogatory manner. Even though Jack and Morris trade insults, Morris tells Jack to consider the offer.
After the call, Jack immediately contacts his friend Lukas, and "blips" to him (that is, transmits to him as a digitally compressed file) a recording of his conversation with Morris. To Jack’s horror, Lukas actually likes the idea because he too sees the goal envisioned by Morris, and thinks Jack will be more than just a figurehead President.
Jack then gets a call from Sara. She begs him to forgive her. He is shocked to hear this at first, but soon agrees to visit her, leaving his current girlfriend (who had been with him all night) in tears. Once he arrives at Sara’s apartment in the East Village, the two argue about why they broke up. But they soon reconcile, and Sara enthusiastically draws Jack into lovemaking. Together again, they return to his penthouse apartment, where Jack hopes to impress her. To some degree, Sara is an idealist (still like the girl she was in college) and is not impressed with the wealth that Jack has amassed as a celebrity. However, her plan to be reunited for eternity with Jack makes her tolerate the situation. They make love a second time.
During his next show, Jack interviews Ms. Dolores Pulaski, a woman distraught because her father is dying of terminal cancer. She begs Jack to get her father into a Freezer so that he'll have a chance to be cured some day, and possibly receive an immortality treatment as well. Jack immediately makes an on-air call to Benedict Howards, who ends up appearing insensitive during the ensuing conversation. During the commercial break, Howards is furious, but concedes to Jack’s previous demands, as long as Jack allows him to save face. They agree to discuss things later in private.
The next day, Howards visits Jack's office and demands that Jack support the Utility Freezer Bill in exchange for a Freezer contract. But Jack doesn’t trust Howards, and gets him to admit that his foundation has already discovered an immortality treatment. Howards then agrees to give the same treatment to Jack and Sara, but Jack thinks Howards is still hiding something. He asks to know more about the treatment, but Howards refuses. In the end, Jack won’t sign, but Howards says he'll give Jack another twenty-four hours to reconsider.
While Jack is on his way home, Sara receives a call from Howards. He reminds her that she must convince Jack to sign. This angers Sara, and makes her feel guilty about keeping secrets. When Jack returns home, she admits about being coerced, but asks to be forgiven. With a mutual confession of love, Jack and Sara commit themselves to ruining Howards together.
The next day, Howards visits Jack again with new contracts for both Jack and Sara to sign. The new contracts not only guarantee being frozen, but also the immortality treatment. Howards gloats to himself about finally trapping Jack and Sara. Jack cannot see any drawback in the contract, and he and Sara agree to sign. Howards then desperately attempts to get Jack and Sara to receive their treatment immediately, but Jack puts him off, saying he prefers to wait for some time, although Sara cannot understand why they should wait.
Early the next morning, Jack receives a call from Madge Hennering, the wife of the Senator who supported Howards. Senator Hennering had died since his last conversation with Jack, and his widow, very distraught, tells Jack that her husband had a bitter fight with Howards just prior to his death. She is convinced that her husband found out something terrible about the Foundation, and was killed by Howards to stop him from telling anyone. She begs Jack to help, but he refuses to believe her story.
On the next broadcast of “Bug Jack Barron”, a man named Henry George Franklin calls in and complains that he sold his young daughter to some wealthy men for $50,000. Even though the men promised to provide his daughter with a better life, Henry claims he was duped, and wants Jack to help him get his daughter back. Jack finds Mr. Franklin’s plea contemptible, and quickly cuts him off. After the show, Jack feels that that episode wasn’t very good, but changes his mind after a call soon arrives from Howards. Howards is furious that Franklin was on the show, and threateningly tells Jack to abandon the story altogether. Jack can’t understand how Henry George Franklin can be a threat to Howards, and angrily tells Howards to back off.
Intrigued by Howards's reaction, Jack flies to Evers, Mississippi, hoping to meet Franklin and speak with him. Jack was hoping to go alone and keep a low profile, but his plans are ruined by Lukas Greene, who stages a political rally at the airport as a prelude to Jack’s presidential run. Jack is upset, but leaves the airport with Lukas by limo, where Jack accuses Greene of selling out. Greene doesn’t listen, and says again that Jack is a good man, and can help the country by running for President.
Unwilling to meet Franklin at the governor's mansion, Jack goes to see him in a restaurant located in a low-income neighborhood. Franklin is happy to see Jack, but Jack finds Franklin just as contemptible in person. Still, there is a mystery about the whole incident, and Barron agrees to help somehow. They start by walking to the governor's mansion, when a sniper kills Franklin. The sniper attempts to shoot Jack as well, but he escapes unharmed due to the help of the local police. Jack tells the police he doesn’t know who tried to kill him, but quickly deduces that Benedict Howards must have been behind the shooting. With that assumption, Jack realizes that the Foundation must also be responsible for buying Franklin’s daughter. Jack later confirms his suspicion by using computer records to search for other children who are now missing.
Upon his return home, Jack shares all his suspicions with Sara. They both assume Howards is responsible for the deaths of Hennering and Franklin. In addition, Jack believes the Foundation is buying young black children for some reason. To get to the bottom of the mystery, Jack unveils a plan. He and Sara will receive their immortality treatment, and make Howards think he really has them trapped. Then when Howards admits to all his crimes, Jack will use a concealed very small portable telephone to record the confession. Sara agrees, and is impressed by Jack's risk-taking attitude. The two celebrate by having oral sex.
The next day, Jack and Sara go to Benedict Howards's office, agree to get the treatment immediately, and trap him into admitting that he actually was responsible for the murders. However, Howards does not get angered from this and proceeds with the treatment. When the treatment is over and Jack and Sara wake up in the hospital, Howards explains Jack that the treatment is, in essence, transplantation of glands of children (the children that were abducted) to the persons that get it and that the children are being killed off by very strong and fatal radiation. Jack is appalled by this and realizes that this is why Howards killed Hennering; he obviously found out about the children. When he confronts Howards, Howards, threatens him that he will suborn witnesses to testify that Jack and Sara knew everything about the treatment, meaning that he and Sara will also be charged with murder and will be executed (e.g. no immortality) as well; that is, in the case that Jack make a move against Howards.
Jack and Sara return home where he reveals to her the truth about the children and that he will support the Foundation in his next shows. When he actually goes to the show, he gets a call from Sara, who commits suicide in order to change his mind about the show. Jack, now gone mad, reveals the truth during the show, while Howards goes paranoid on air, threatening to kill him. Jack, then, begs the viewers to believe that he didn't know anything about the children beforehand.
Eventually, Jack does run for President, planning to give his position to future Vice-President Lukas Green, who is black, after his election.Jack Barron – Protagonist and host of the talk show named Bug Jack Barron. Prior to this, he was politically active in the Social Justice Coalition.
Benedict Howards – Antagonist of the book. He is the President and Chairman of the Board of the Foundation for Human Immortality, a private corporation that owns a monopoly on all cryogenic freezing in the United States.
Lukas Greene – An old political friend of Jack and the black Social Justice Governor of Mississippi. He is against the Foundation for Human Immortality because it promotes racial discrimination.
Sara Westerfeld – Barron's ex-wife. They met at Berkeley, and were politically active in the SJC before getting married. Sara divorced Jack two years after he became a TV star.
Vidphone – A video telephone. Allows callers to both speak and see each other on a small screen. The Jack Barron Show makes heavy use of this to get various speakers to face each other and debate.
Blip – High speed data transfer of a vidphone recording. Done by speeding up synchronized tape reels, on both the sender and receiver ends of a call.
Acapulco Golds – Legal form of marijuana commercially sold in the United States.
Freezer Complex – A building or location run by the Foundation for Human Immortality. Customers have their body stored using cryonics, hoping to be restored to life when medical technology is sufficiently advanced.
Social Justice Coalition – A political party founded by Jack Barron, and stands on a platform of civil rights. It is largely supported by African-Americans, and is strong in the southern states. It becomes the target of manipulation by the Republican party which is trying to regain power via a coalition with the SJC.
Miniphone – A small mobile phone that communicates via a network of local radio relays and communication satellites.
In 1992, The New York Times noted that in Jack Barron, "Norman Spinrad created the talk-show host as powerful public-opinion maker."
Algis Budrys gave the novel a mixed review, describing it as "a good book, and excellent idea and fair piece of writing." Budrys faulted the central science-fictional device as "absolute nonsense," saying that Spinrad "did not care enough about credibility to even be graceful," and noted that "Spinrad often uses representations of things, rather than the things themselves, and this doesn't always work." Still, he concluded, the book "is a flawed but acceptable telling of a magnificent story, a representation of nobility, one might say, with a Mickey Mouse ending. Joanna Russ, however, found the book to be "a bad book [where] the author is not in control of his material, but is in the process of being smothered by it." She faulted Spinrad's writing style ("Everybody talks like everybody else"), his plotting ("a novel of political intrigue ought to have an intelligible intrigue in it"), and characterization (the main antagonist is "only a villain-shaped hole crammed with super-high-gear prose"), concluding that the book was a "romantic, half-innocent, youthfully bouncy, exasperatingly schlocky and ultimately silly book."
A striking feature of the novel is its lyrical style and unique use of cut-up phrases. In this regard, Spinrad himself has talked about the influence of Beat writers William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac.
Spinrad adapted his novel as a screenplay in the 1970s, but it was never produced. Since 2012, Spinrad has been selling digital facsimile (Kindle format) copies of the screenplay online.
In 1983, author Harlan Ellison was hired to write a new screenplay for a film to be directed by Costa-Gavras for Universal Pictures. Again, the project went nowhere. In 2012, Ellison published this screenplay, titled "None of the Above," including casting suggestions that had Martin Sheen as Jack Barron and Sigourney Weaver as Sara.