That Was Then, This Is Now chronicles the experiences of Bryon, the first-person narrator, and Mark, his best friend and foil, as they grow up in a tough, low-income neighborhood during the turbulent 1960’s. Charlie’s Bar, where the novel’s flashback begins, provides the setting for much of the action, and Bryon’s frequent foreshadowing comments create a tone of expectation and foreboding. The opening chapter moves quickly to a scene of violence, as members of the bullying Shepard gang jump M&M. Bryon and Mark rescue him, but M&M’s victimization continues throughout the novel, reinforcing S. E. Hinton’s depiction of the lack of justice on the streets, as does the story told by hospital patient Mike Chambers, a white youth who is beaten by black toughs when a girl he tries to rescue falsely identifies him as an attacker. Bryon understands why Mike does not hate black people as a result of his beating, but Mark considers him “stupid” for trying to help.
Despite their bond, Bryon and Mark have distinctly different ethical systems; Mark is on probation for hot-wiring cars, yet he ironically steals the principal’s car each day in order to meet his probation officer. Talking his way out of that situation, Mark leads a seemingly charmed life; Bryon marvels at Mark’s ability to get away with anything and admires his lionlike beauty and daring resourcefulness. For example, when Bryon and Mark owe Charlie three dollars, and Bryon worries about paying the bill before Charlie beats it out of them, Mark conveniently picks three dollars from the pocket of one of M&M’s assailants. Mark rationalizes his actions, and, when Bryon’s mother is hospitalized, Mark brings home money that Bryon suspects is either stolen or poker winnings. Since they cannot live without it, however, Bryon asks no questions.
While Mark seeks quick, dangerous solutions to their financial crisis, Bryon gets a job at a supermarket bagging groceries and develops a serious relationship with M&M’s sister, Cathy. The divergent reactions of the boys to the increasing tension of their lives emphasize that people change. Bryon examines his decisions, often pondering the “what if” questions that are impossible to answer. Mark, on the other hand, does not want to consider difficult questions; his is a practical existence, and his decisions are based more on immediate need than on the ultimate outcome. Even Charlie’s death, which haunts Bryon throughout the entire novel, is dismissed by Mark as “just one of those things that happen.” Charlie dies because Mark and Bryon hustle two armed Texans who decide to take revenge, yet Mark feels no sense of responsibility or guilt.
Both Mark and Bryon end up in the hospital for stitches as a result of brutal beatings. Mark is hit in the head with a bottle at a school dance because a jealous Angela Shepard sends someone after Ponyboy Curtis (a character from Hinton’s 1967 novel The Outsiders); Bryon is badly beaten by the Shepard gang because he is blamed for Mark’s cruel prank against Angela (cutting her hair while she is drunk). In each case, the violence is senseless and mistaken, yet the injustice cannot be undone. Their different reactions to their experience, however, reflect the growing rift in the boys’ relationship: When Mark wants to retaliate against the Shepard gang for Bryon’s beating, Bryon makes him promise not to seek revenge. Bryon wants to break the “circle” of violence, but Mark feels frustrated by his inability to impose his own justice.
As Bryon’s relationship with Cathy intensifies, he spends less time with Mark, who continues to supply the household with more money than could possibly be won or stolen. Mark becomes openly antagonistic toward Cathy, and she, too, does not hide her disapproval of him. When M&M runs away, Mark knows that he is hiding out at the hippie commune, but he does not tell Bryon until after the Shepard beating. When Bryon and Cathy go to the commune to bring M&M home, they find him in a delusional state, fearfully trapped in a nightmarish LSD reality.
Bryon and Cathy rush M&M to the hospital, but the cynical doctor offers little hope for a full recovery. Bryon’s love for Cathy and her family overwhelms his loyalty to Mark, and, when he discovers Mark’s stash of pills that same night, facing for the first time the truth about Mark’s drug-dealing activities, he panics. In his worry and anger over M&M’s bad trip, Bryon calls the police. Mark’s subsequent arrest destroys the bond of brotherhood and friendship that sustained the two, and both are miserable in the final outcome. At the end of the novel, Bryon has only questions and self-pity upon which to reflect: Cathy is seeing Ponyboy, and Mark is a hardened inmate of the state reformatory. Mark has become a “dangerous caged lion” who is unable to get away with anything, and Bryon is a straight-A student who longs to return to a simpler, idealized past.