Concrete is a company town and home of the Lone Star Cement Company. The town is gray, bleak, and dusty. Children from up and down the valley bus into Concrete to attend school, but many get married, drop out, or join the army before graduating. There are not many good teachers there, and though Jack brings home good grades in his first couple years, they are a “fraud”—he copies other students’ homework and puts off studying for tests until the last minute. After a while, he stops making A’s and starts making C’s, but doctors his report cards so that no one at home finds out.
Jack begins struggling in school, and his attempts to adopt a persona or false identity start extending to his schoolwork as he falsifies his grades and cheats in order to get by.
Even going to class sometimes feels like “too much” of an effort for Jack—he has fallen in with a “notorious” group of older boys and is dedicated to becoming an outlaw just like them. His closest friend is Chuck Bolger, who drinks to excess and gets into trouble all the time despite being the son of a preacher. Also in their group is a boy named Psycho, who has already served jail time; Arch Cook, a dumb and skinny boy; and Jerry Huff, a handsome boy who’s popular with girls but bullies nearly everyone in school. The boys drive around most afternoons in Chuck’s car, looking for ways to siphon gas from other cars, and getting into other shenanigans.
Jack has been unable to succeed on the straight and narrow path, and now takes on a new identity as an “outlaw” in order to explore other facets of his personality and fit in at school. His desire to join a rough-and-tumble group of older boys reflects his inability to feel accepted in his own home—here is a group that embraces Jack, and even if they get into trouble, at least he feels included.
The boys often “share” girlfriends, and they try to help Jack lose his virginity. Jack, though, wants to lose his virginity to someone he loves, and he harbors fantasies of having the perfect first sexual experience. Jack has trouble catching the attention of the girls he likes, and even when a girl is nice to him, he turns around and treats her “swinishly,” ensuring all his flirtations go nowhere.
Jack, having witnessed nothing but years of abusive relationships between his mother and a string of cruel men, finds himself unable to treat girls well in his own life, but doesn’t seem to understand the connection between the two things.
The older boys do succeed, however, in helping Jack get drunk for the first time. The experience is strange, dreamlike, and transcendent, and ends with Jack alone in the woods after falling off a steep gully. As his friends call for him, he purposefully ignores their voices, and spends the night sleeping in the woods. The following morning when he returns home, Dwight and Rosemary ask him where he’s been. When he replies that he got drunk and fell off a cliff, Dwight is surprisingly proud, but Rosemary is stern and worried.
Just as Dwight was proud of Jack for beating up Arthur Gayle rather than angry with him, Dwight is excited and a little proud to see Jack getting into another kind of trouble. Dwight is himself a drunk, and seems to relish any time one of his own behaviors—however shameful or cruel—show up in Jack.