The novel opens as Francis Cassavant returns to his hometown of Monument after serving in World War II. Francis begins his story by explaining the gruesome injuries he sustained when he fell on a live grenade and saved his platoon. His face was permanently disfigured, but he ultimately survived and was awarded the Silver Star medal in recognition of his bravery. After recovering in a veterans hospital in England, Francis returns home with one goal: to murder the man who had sent him to war, his childhood hero and fellow Silver Star recipient Larry LaSalle.
To that end, Francis disguises his identity from the residents of his hometown, giving a fake name at his boarding house and always traveling with a scarf and hat to cover his wounds. As he stalks about Frenchtown hunting for any news of Larry, he meets other local veterans and begins to frequent their favorite bar, the St. Jude Club. At the bar, the other veterans talk eagerly of their future plans now that the war is over, but never of their experiences overseas. Eventually, one the veterans, Arthur Rivier, recognizes Francis but agrees to keep his identity secret. Not long after, Francis encounters Arthur drunkenly slumped over in alley. As Francis helps him, Arthur begins to pour out his emotions, lamenting that nobody wants to talk about the horrible truth of what happened during the war, and exclaiming that the war wasn’t a stage for glamorous, heroic soldiers, but merely a group of terrified children caught up in a violent struggle for survival.
Through various flashbacks, Francis relates the story of his simple and innocent childhood, which was centered on his quest to win the affection of Nicole Renard. While Francis was well liked by his fellow children, he was not particularly popular or even notable, and thus he struggled at first to win the attention of his sweetheart. However, his luck began to change with the arrival of Larry and the opening of the town’s new recreation center, which was dubbed the “Wreck Center” due to its shoddy refurbishment and its bloody history as the site of a wedding that turned into a mass shooting.
Under Larry’s leadership, the children of Frenchtown flooded the Wreck Center; Larry had a special talent for making even the most quiet children feel appreciated and talented. Under Larry’s tutelage, Francis became the Ping-Pong champion, which secured Nicole’s attention, and made him a hero among the children of Frenchtown. Hailed as a hero and inching ever closer to his childhood sweetheart, Francis seemed to be living in a perfect world, but the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent entry of the United States into WWII changed everything. Larry was the first young man of Monument to enlist in the armed forces, leaving the Wreck Center closed in the wake of his departure. Meanwhile, Francis and Nicole fell in love. Suddenly, however, Monument received news that their native son, Larry LaSalle, was awarded the Silver Star for heroism in the South Pacific, and with it, a furlough to return home.
During the town’s party for Larry’s return, Larry rounded up his old Wreck Center crew to sneak into the Wreck Center after hours. After a night of fun, people began to leave until only Larry, Nicole, and Francis were left. Larry asked Francis to leave so that he could have one last dance with Nicole, and though Francis felt that something was amiss, he did as Larry told him. At the last minute, though, Francis chose to remain hidden in the shadows where he heard Larry rape Nicole. Paralyzed by fear and confusion, Francis remained hidden until Nicole burst from the darkness and realized that Francis had been standing there the whole time. Betrayed and disgusted, she left without speaking to Francis. Larry, unaware that Francis had witnessed his crime, left Frenchtown the next morning to return to combat.
Distraught, Francis waited outside of Nicole’s house for days until she finally came out and angrily sent him away. That night, contemplating suicide, Francis climbed the steeple of the town church, but ultimately decided that to take his own life in such an obvious way would only disgrace his family. The next day, he altered his birth certificate and enlisted in the Army, hoping to die “with honor” in combat.
Back in the present time, Larry resurfaces in Frenchtown, and Francis puts a pistol in his pocket and tracks him down. Since Larry and Francis were friends (and Larry doesn’t know Francis witnessed the rape), Larry receives him warmly. As the two men talk, Francis confesses that the true reason he went to war was because he wanted to die, and then he reveals that he witnessed the rape. Francis draws his gun, intent on avenging Nicole, but Larry explains to Francis how much he lost in the war, drawing his own gun and speaking of how he, too, has contemplated suicide. Saving Francis from the burden of murder, Larry convinces Francis to leave. Out on the street, Francis hears a single gunshot from Larry’s apartment.
With that part of his past settled, Francis tracks down Nicole, who has moved to Albany. Their conversation is awkward when they meet, and Nicole does not allow the possibility that their relationship might resume, but she does apologize for blaming Francis for her trauma. When she asks Francis what his plans are, he gives the answer of one of his fellow veterans from the St. Jude Club: finish high school and attend college on the GI Bill. When they run out of conversation topics, Francis asks to see Nicole again, and she declines and leaves. As he heads into the train station, Francis thinks of all the things he could do next: find his war buddy Enrico, find the doctor who said he could fix his disfigured face, start a career as a writer like Nicole wanted him to do when they were younger. Then he thinks of Nicole one last time, along with the gun in his duffel bag and the possibility of his own suicide. Ultimately, he slings his bag comfortably over his shoulders and heads for the next train out of Albany, giving no clues as to his final decision or destination.