Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 854
Charles Milford and his close friend Johnny Hill, who receives a monthly allowance of $100 from his father, leave their Midwestern hometown because they believe the United States has nothing to offer them, even though they have never visited New York or any other American metropolitan area. One autumn, they buy two large black hats and decide to go to Paris and live there permanently. Reading George Moore’s Confessions of a Young Man (1888) has inspired Charles to start writing about his adventures with Johnny. Johnny supports Charles, types his manuscripts, and calls him the most perceptive and delicate author since Henry James. The two friends love Montparnasse, peer into the windows of art galleries, avoid the Louvre and the museum at the Luxembourg Garden as merely attractions for tourists, and instead frequent various cafés, where fellow drinkers label them “the two boys.” Fanny Lee, an American woman now too shapeless to be an entertainer any longer, follows them from bar to bar, has nine or ten drinks an evening on them, and occasions their snickering criticism as they lie in their bed later.
One night at an English-style bar, the two eavesdrop on others and snicker so loudly at what they overhear that Stan Mason, up from Nice and drinking heavily, calls them two little goats. They bow so seriously in response that he is mollified, buys them drinks, and discusses architecture rather learnedly, until Charles suggests that his comments are really not very important. That night, the boys sit on the edge of their bed, talk about Mason, and for half the night snicker some more.
At a bar in November, the pair are listening to a jazz pianist from the United States when rich Milton Simpson and his wife enter. He has come to Paris to start life over again by writing, painting, and composing piano pieces simultaneously. He happens to brush past Charles, who without sufficient provocation pushes him away. They squabble until the pianist lays hold of Charles and drags him away. When the sensitive fellow begins to tremble and cry, Johnny leads him outside. Simpson follows apologetically, buys them brandies, and lectures them on new trends in psychology. He admires their patient, serious attentiveness. Later, after undressing together and while sitting naked on the edge of their bed, the boys agree that Simpson was boring but the brandies he bought them were excellent. Their witty sallies to each other tire them, and they soon fall asleep.
After two full weeks of writing and typing, the boys scrape some money together and go to Nice for the winter. They manage to stay with Mason, who generously lets them use his spare room, and they meet plump Constance Foy. One night Mason overhears their snickering bedtime criticism of him through the thin wall, so he tells them tactfully that he needs the spare room and suggests that they leave. The boys get a hotel room and remain in Nice until April, at which time they toss their bags out the window at two o’clock one morning to avoid paying their large bill.
At last, they are in Paris in April, but their fun is spoiled by cold, damp weather. Johnny pays a one-week visit to his father, now in England and angry with him. People do not notice Charles when he sits alone in the café because he seems so insignificant. On encountering Mason, he discusses casual flings that he and Johnny have had with girls but expresses the hope that Johnny will not get serious in England. Johnny returns, and the patrons of the local cafés are pleased by the boys’ reappearance. Johnny says that when his father told him to get a job, he commented that the old man had inherited unearned money himself, whereupon his father slapped him and he punched his father. Johnny also reveals that he picked up some cheap women in London. Nothing serious, Charles concludes to himself.
Toward the end of April, with the air now warm and clear and moonlight on the river, Constance comes to Paris and moves in with the boys. The trio frequent bars at Johnny’s expense and at night make love—impartially at first. One evening Constance tells Mason that although they are having a good enough time, strange things are happening. Charles, very much in love with Johnny, criticizes him for getting too serious with Constance. The two boys drink one evening at the English bar; afterward, Charles, growing tearful on the street, tells Johnny not to let a tart ruin their relationship. In a sudden rage, Johnny slaps Charles. Both weep, shake their heads, and will not go home together. Mason happens by on his way to the bar and lets Charles stay with him, drinking and not eating. A week later, Mason suddenly informs Charles that Johnny is returning to the United States with Constance. Charles, not really knowing how he can earn money for drinks, goes to the café one cold, wet evening, sits alone at a table, and for the first time in Paris puts on his big black hat.
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