After her second husband’s death, Ruth “stagger[s] through the motions of life.” She does her best to maintain her household, but emotionally she is falling apart. James doesn’t like being around the house with his devastated mother, and so he begins sneaking out, and eventually staying out and not going to school. Looking back, James understands he was beginning his own “process of running, emotionally disconnecting myself from [Ruth], as if by doing so I could keep her suffering from touching me.”
Although Ruth has been able to cope with many tragedies in her life by locking away her negative memories or else by physically running away, after the death of her second husband she is unable to escape her grief. James also finds his emotions unbearable, and so he reacts by spending as much time away from home as possible, because home reminds him of the father he’s lost.
At fourteen, James is finally the oldest child in his house, but instead of ruling over his siblings he is out of the house as much as possible, smoking marijuana, drinking, and playing in a soul band. James handle watching his mother suffer, and is afraid of taking on the responsibility of looking after his family, so instead of trying to help pay the bills or keep the house in order he ignores the chaos. Instead, together with his new friends Beanie, Marvin, Chink, Pig, and Bucky, he shoplifts, breaks into cars, and robs freight cars on the nearby railroad. One particularly debaucherous night, the police find James and his friends with cases of stolen wine. James runs and hides, and when it’s clear he’s home free he gets so drunk in celebration that he can’t walk. When he eventually makes it home Ruth whips him in punishment, but it doesn’t change his behavior. James explains, “my friends became my family, and my family and mother just became people I lived with.”
James’s home life has become too emotionally complicated for him to deal with. Although he has waited his whole life to be the oldest sibling, and to rule over his younger brothers and sisters, he would rather suppress his emotions through crime, drugs, and alcohol than face his mourning family. Just as Ruth left home as a young woman and constructed a new family for herself out of people she met in New York City, James temporarily abandons his biological family in favor of friends, who help him detach from the death of his stepfather.
James snatches purses and even robs a drug dealer with his straight razor and his friend Joe’s gun. When James robs women he feels guilty, but not guilty enough to stop. He believes he is “getting back at the world for injustices I had suffered,” although he admits that he wouldn’t be able to name those injustices if asked. As an adult he can see the connection between when he watched his own mother’s purse get stolen as a child and his purse stealing now, but at the time James felt they were unrelated. He does his best to repress his feelings by drinking and smoking.
As a young adult James never pauses to consider his behavior or why he is acting out. Later in life, writing his book, he can look back and understand that he was running from his feelings about the death of his stepfather. Looking back James can also begin to understand his criminal behavior. Although he never explains it, perhaps by stealing the purses of women his mother’s age he is regaining some of the control he lost when Ruth’s purse was snatched during his early childhood.
James forges his report card for a while, and enlists Kathy to help. However, Kathy gives him C grades instead of his usual As, which prompts Ruth to call the school. Ruth then discovers that James is not even a C student—he’s entirely dropped out. Ruth is unable to punish James. She enrolls him in summer school but he gets thrown out, his older brothers come home and beat him, but nothing works. Eventually, Ruth sends James to spend the summer in Kentucky with his sister Jack, Andrew Dennis McBride’s daughter from a previous marriage.
Kathy helps James forge his report card because they’re siblings, and siblings look out for each other. Yet Ruth uncovers their deception. As a mother she wants nothing more than to see her children succeed, and she only punishes them to try to keep them doing their best. With James, Ruth can see that there is no way she can convince him to change his behavior, so she outsources her disciplining to Jack, a member of her extended family network.
Kentucky is not a punishment for James. He loves Jack, and feels free running around Louisville. He spends a lot of time with Big Richard, Jack’s husband, and the “boys on the ‘the Corner,’” a group of blue collar workers and hustlers who hang out in front of the liquor store. Most of them are “good-natured alcoholics,” and they obey loose codes of ethics—no cheating at dice, don’t pull out a gun if you don’t intend to use it. Chicken Man is James’s favorite of the bunch. He’s a sweet man, incoherent when drunk, and a minor philosopher when sober. James notices that the men on the Corner don’t pay much attention to white people, and are indifferent to the police. James likes that “their world was insular, away from the real world that I was running from.” Here, his dead father and white mother are his own private business.
During his summers in Kentucky, James seeks out a new family in the alcoholics who sit on the corner. For many years this group of men is aspirational — James wants to live outside of the real world, full of stress, death, and racism, and it seems to him that the men on the corner don’t have to deal with any of the real issues that make his life so complicated. What he doesn’t understand as a child, however, is that this lifestyle isn’t preferable to the one he could have if he stayed in school and applied himself. Instead of being free from burdens, a life as an unemployed alcoholic would come with an entirely new set of worries and struggles, one of those being the frustration of unrealized potential.
The men on the Corner look out for James. He steals a few car batteries with one man, Pike, but when they are shot at by an angry car owner Pike refuses to continue to endanger James. Eventually, James gets a real job pumping gas, but is fired after he fights with one of his boss’s friends, a gay man who is sexually harassing him. Unemployed and angry, James spends all of his free time on Corner, plotting revenge against his harasser and former boss. Chicken Man cautions him to “forget it,” and warns him that he’ll get himself arrested and end up on the Corner permanently, with the middle-aged drunks and jobless. James argues that he’s too smart for that to happen, but Chicken Man points out that if James were so smart he wouldn’t be flunking out of school, and forced to spend summers in Louisville because he can’t be trusted in New York.
The men on the Corner look out for James even when he cannot look out for himself. They treat him as a little brother, or as a child, and try to keep him out of harm’s way. Chicken Man sees what James cannot — that living on the Corner is not a life James should aspire to. James is a smart boy, with the resources to go far in life. Chicken Man can see this, and tries to caution James not to squander the potential he has to make something of himself in the world.
A few days later, James gets a real look at what permanent life on the Corner could look like. He sees a man, Mike, arguing and hitting girlfriend because he believes she’s unfaithful, and the next day watches Mike return to the Corner with a sawed-off shotgun ready to shoot her lover. The lover never arrives, and Mike and his girlfriend eventually make up. Chicken Man tells James “that’s why I don’t have no arguments with no woman,” because they’ll just lead to a man embarrassing himself. But Chicken Man eventually does get into an argument with a woman, who shoots and kills him in a liquor store.
Even after James sees some of the harsh realities of living on the Corner, like the constant threat of death, he still entertains fantasies of dropping out of school completely. Still, Chicken Man’s sudden death sticks with him throughout his life, and slowly begins to convince him that this isn’t the easy, carefree existence he had imagined.