In heaven, Eddie wakes up on a familiar battleground in a decimated jungle during a storm. He hears explosions and thunder, and starts to run. He realizes he feels strong like a soldier, and no longer limber like a child. He is also surprised to realize he can feel fear in heaven.
Eddie experiences the physical changes of time as he moves into his memories of young adulthood. In the world of the novel, heaven is touched by all aspects of life, not just the beautiful, as memories of violence and destruction must also be explored in making sense of one’s life.
The narrator comments that young men sometimes go to war because they confuse battle with bravery. The story now flashes back to Eddie’s youth, when World War II was taking place. For Eddie, working at Ruby Pier and trying to save money to study engineering seem irrelevant when other men are shipping out, so Eddie enlists in the army. On one night, not long before shipping out, Eddie is at the arcade range practicing shooting. Mickey Shea appears, and drunkenly warns Eddie that if he needs to shoot, “You fire and you fire and you don’t think about who you’re shootin or killin or why.”
War gives young men like Eddie the chance to prove their character, proving to themselves and others that they are important—thus feeding on their insecurities and their desire to assume the male ideal of bravery. It also connects everyone in a society through a collective effort, which is why Eddie’s own goals start to feel “irrelevant.” Mickey, however, reminds Eddie that war is about death, and is nothing glorious or romantic.
In heaven, Eddie surveys the ruined jungle and realizes this is the place that has long haunted his nightmares. Eddie hears a voice call to him from the trees. Suddenly finds himself in the trees with the Captain, whom he served under in the Philippines. The Captain confirms that he is Eddie’s second person in heaven. The novel then flashes back to all of the lessons Eddie learned in war—such as how to appear unbothered when witnessing the desperation of others, how to pray silently, and how to live efficiently with hunger, cold, lack of shelter, and illness. In heaven, the Captain asks Eddie what he did after the war. Eddie remarks that he went back to his uneventful life, and lost touch with the other men from their unit—preferring not to be reminded of their shared wartime memories.
Battle teaches Eddie another male social ideal—that of emotional toughness, which he has already learned from his father’s example. Eddie also experiences the fact that battle forces people to be intimately aware of their own and others’ physical and emotional vulnerabilities. Eddie and his men are connected, even silently, through their shared violent deeds, suffering, and closeness to death. After the war, Eddie cuts those connections, demonstrating that war brings death and darkness so close that it affects one for a lifetime, and colors all other human relationships.
The novel flashes back in time. Eddie and his unit—Rabozzo, Morton, Smitty, and the Captain—are in the Philippines and are being held captive by enemy soldiers. While Rabozzo screams in the night, Morton chatters constantly, and Smitty stays quiet, Eddie focuses on his anger. They soon stop eating the salty, bug-ridden rice balls they are fed, and Eddie notices that the enemies themselves—whom the unit calls Crazy One, Two, Three and Four—also seem desperate and malnourished. One day, the “Crazies” force the unit into a dark coalmine. At night, Eddie holds a photo of Marguerite that he keeps crumpled up in his helmet, and bargains with God to return him to her.
By noticing the desperation of his captors, Eddie sees some of their humanity—despite calling them “Crazies.” Though they are enemies, they are connected through their shared experiences of hunger and suffering. Eddie focuses on his anger as a defense mechanism to avoid feeling helpless. His photo of Marguerite keeps him anchored to life in the face of death. Eddie fights, not for his ideals or his desire for greatness, but rather for the ordinary relationships that give meaning to his life.
After a few more months, Rabozzo developers a fever and falls down while working in the coalmine. Crazy Two forces him to keep working, and Eddie tries to defend him. In response, Crazy Two leans down and shoots Rabozzo in the head. After Rabozzo is killed, Eddie stops praying. The unit realizes that the “Crazies” are planning to work them to death.
Eddie’s self-sacrificing character is evident when he puts himself in danger to defend Rabozzo. Rabozzo’s death makes the fragility and helplessness of their situation real. Eddie stops praying because Rabozzo’s death symbolizes the men’s sense of abandonment by God.
One day, Eddie sees Crazy Three juggling coal, and he decides to show him the correct way to juggle. Eddie begins to entertain the “Crazies” with the carnival skills he learned at Ruby Pier as a child. While they are distracted, Eddie signals his men to help him attack the Crazies by pretending his instructions are part of the carnival tune. On his signal, Eddie stops juggling, pitches the coal to two of the Crazies, and his men seize the other two. By taking their guns while they are down, the unit manages to kill all of their captors. As Smitty kills the last of the Crazies, he says, “For Rabozzo.” The unit then decides to burn the place down.
Both in death and life, Eddie often feels that his life at Ruby Pier has lacked meaning or purpose. Yet, it turns out that he and his men are able to make a nearly impossible escape all because of the trivial-seeming juggling skill Eddie learned at Ruby Pier. Though Eddie feels his life is arbitrary and meaningless, this unlikely turn of events and its connection to Eddie’s past show how ordinary life is full of purposes which are unknowable—of significance that has yet to unfold.