Gary Soto's novel Buried Onions is told from the first person perspective of Eddie, the novel's protagonist. Eddie describes a few weeks of his life in the Mexican barrio of southeast Fresno and his attempts to escape his poverty-ridden neighborhood. Eddie has recently dropped out of college and is attempting to find his way in life. The inciting incident of the novel is described in the first few pages. Eddie's cousin, Jesús, who is later described negatively by an aunt, is killed in the bathroom of a club with his best friend Angel, who later becomes Eddie's antagonist in the novel.
The conflict of the novel could best be described as man vs. society. Eddie is plagued by almost everyone and everything around him, including the gangsters that he grew up with, his family, and the circumstances of his life in the barrio. He is set up against the ironically named Angel, who is the worst of the "cholos" he encounters throughout the book. Soto uses an excellent metaphor to describe Eddie's conflict. When he discovers that cockroaches have infested his apartment, he traps them and, when he believes he is rid of them, they reappear, seemingly unfazed. These cockroaches are like the people in his life, such as Angel, his tía and even his mother, who have nothing more to offer him than grief.
The rising action of the novel revolves around Eddie's struggles in a world which seems to be against him. His tía Dolores, Jesús's mother, very much wants him to go after the boy's killer and even produces a gun for Eddie to use. When he refuses, he is badgered by Angel, who winds up with the gun. Meanwhile, he seeks employment painting numbers on curbsides. After he lands a good job planting trees for a homeowner in the nicer part of Fresno, everything goes awry when the man's truck is stolen while in Eddie's possession.
Later, Eddie's best friend José, who is visiting from the Marines, is stabbed trying to recover the stolen truck. With things constantly working against him, Eddie seeks refuge at his childhood playground where he talks to "Coach," one of the few positive adults in his life. Coach suggests that maybe Eddie should join the service and sends him to the Navy recruiting office where he encounters an uninspiring recruiter and a "stoner" he knew from high school. As with community college, it seems the Navy won't have the answers Eddie seeks. Later, however, he reconsiders and, out of necessity, does join the military in the final chapter.
The novel's climax is the fight between Eddie and Angel. It begins as Eddie, afraid that Angel will ambush him, takes the fight to his nemesis and attacks Angel on the porch of his house. This fight, which also involves the young gangster Samuel, ends with no resolution but is continued at the hospital when they accidentally meet on the stairs. Again the fight has no victor but leaves both of them badly injured. It is after the fight that Eddie decides to get out of Fresno. Like the cockroaches, he knows that Angel will be back.
It takes Eddie's departure from Fresno to resolve his problems. When the Navy bus which is taking him to training camp breaks down, Eddie walks into an agricultural field where they are picking onions. Onions are symbolic of Eddie's problems and whenever they are mentioned something bad seems to happen. This time, however, Eddie indicates that the tears he sheds from breathing in the scent of the onions are the last of his "childhood tears." He has finally escaped a society where he could not survive.