Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024
Johnnie Kowalski awakens one morning from a nightmare in which he reverted to adolescence: The adult in him was mocking the youth and vice versa, and all the ill-fitting parts of his adolescent body were jeering at one another in rude and raucous fashion. The dream brings back uncomfortable memories of his literary debut and his sense of being doubly trapped, by his own childhood and by the childishness in others’ perception of him, “the caricature of myself which existed in their minds.” At the moment he sat down to make a new start, to write a new book that would, this time, be truly identical with himself, the distinguished professor T. Pimko appeared on his doorstep. As the diminutive but terrible Pimko quizzed him on King Ladislas and Latin grammar, Kowalski felt himself shrinking to schoolboy size. His adult mind knew that the situation was absurd, but his body seemed paralyzed, and when Pimko dragged him off to enroll in school, Kowalski did not resist.
Neither the boys nor the schoolmasters seemed to notice anything odd or unusual, and Kowalski found himself conforming to schoolboy behavior in spite of himself. Like the others, he languished in stultifying classroom sessions where the masters taught that Juliusz Sowacki’s poetry was great because Sowacki was a great poet; like the others, he smeared ink on his hands and picked his nose. Only one boy, Kopeida, seemed unaffected by any of this. Kowalski was drawn into a “duel of grimaces” between Siphon, the honorable, innocent Adolescent, and Mientus, the champion of crass, foulmouthed Boyhood. Mientus, on the verge of losing, simply called on his cronies to attack Siphon, and they held him down while Mientus poured all the obscenities he knew into Siphon’s ear.
At the very climax of this “violation by the ear,” Pimko reappeared and dragged Kowalski away again, this time to the home of the Youthful family, where he was to rent a room. The family consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Youthful (both educated and both earnestly progressive) and their daughter Zutka, who was the embodiment of the modern girl—athletic, unaffected, and absolutely invulnerable. At this point Kowalski became not only unable but also unwilling to reveal his true, thirty-year-old self: All he cared about was what Zutka thought of him. He tried to gain the psychological advantage by annoying her, but drunken Mientus, boasting of his exploits with the housemaid and rambling on about running away to the country to fraternize with honest stable lads, burst in and ruined the moment.
All Johnnie could do was continue his assault on Zutka’s perfect, unreflective indifference by playing the fool and knave. He disgusted the Youthfuls with his table manners and invaded their orderly bathroom, where he danced a disorderly dance; he paid a beggar to stand in front of Zutka’s window with a green twig in his mouth; and he spied on Zutka through the keyhole and rifled through her desk. There he found love letters from schoolboys, lawyers, doctors, landlords, and even Professor Pimko himself. Johnnie decided to lay low both Pimko and the Youthfuls with one stroke: Imitating Zutka’s hand, he wrote notes inviting both Pimko and Kopeida to a rendezvous.
At first all went as planned. After Kopeida climbed through the girl’s window, to Zutka’s delight, followed by Pimko, to Zutka’s consternation, he raised the alarm. The Youthfuls, however, were charmed by their daughter’s lack of prudishness—yet another proof that she was thoroughly modern. Pimko, on the other hand, responded less calmly to the situation, and soon the entire group was nothing more than a rolling, punching, kicking, and biting heap on the floor.
As Kowalski made his escape from the house, Mientus popped up again and announced that he raped the maid, and he suggested that he and Johnnie make for the countryside, where the real people lived. They trudged through one deserted village after another. Puzzled, they knocked on a door and were greeted by furious barking; they soon discovered that the peasants turned themselves into dogs. Suspicious of city folk, bureaucrats, and “stitizens wi’eir intentions,” the snarling pack of villagers set upon Mientus and Johnnie. Suddenly a car drove right into their midst; it was Kowalski’s aunt on her way home to the country estate where he was raised. Clucking and chiding, she whisked both “boys” into the car. On the way, she tallied up events and birthdays to come up with Kowalski’s true age, but it didn’t matter. For her he would always be ten years old.
At the estate lived Uncle Edward, cousins Isabel and Alfred, many servants, and a multitude of hunting dogs. The masters sleepily ate, played cards, and discussed the various family ailments and their cures. Mientus discovered his ideal of a stable boy in the person of Bert, a young servant. The family therefore assumed he was either a homosexual or a communist, but they were not disturbed until Mientus resolved to show his solidarity with the common folk by goading Bert into hitting him in the face. Servants and masters alike were scandalized. Kowalski felt the atmosphere growing thick and poisonous, and once again plotted his escape, resigning himself to taking Bert at least part of the way because Mientus refused to leave without him. It occurred to Kowalski that abducting his cousin Isabel would be more logical than abducting a stable boy, but he discarded the idea.
The boys were discovered, and Uncle Edward’s attempt to reestablish his feudal prerogatives by beating Bert into submission backfired. Bert hit back, and soon Bert, Mientus, Alfred, Edward, and the aunt were engaged in the fray. Johnnie left the pile of wriggling bodies and made for the gates, where cousin Isabel found him. Rather than explain the whole absurd situation to Isabel or some later audience, Kowalski declared his passion for the girl; she eagerly fell in with all the conventional expectations about runaway lovers and elopements. As Isabel clung to him, the sun, the “arch-bum,” rose over the forest, and Johnnie, knowing flight was useless, fled.