The story begins in industrial Pittsburgh at the height of American industrial expansion and at a time when wealth, power, and material values are supreme and dominate the thought and goals of the nation. Paul is a misfit in every way, and the reader is given a detailed description of his conflicts with school, home, and society. Paul is different from his peers. He dresses with a kind of dandified elegance, sporting fancy neckwear and a flower in his lapel. He is bored with school and hates his shabby room at home and his middle-class neighbors and the street where he lives. Paul’s mother died shortly after his birth, and he has been reared by his father, who seems distant and preoccupied with money and hard work.
Paul’s real love, his only true mental and spiritual life, seems to be realized in the glamour and color of the world of theater and music. He works part-time as an usher in Carnegie Hall, where concerts are held. There he loses himself in the music, the glitter of performance, and the fantasy of a world that is sensual and utterly removed from the prosaic day-to-day needs and routines of his domestic and school worlds. He wants to be noticed, to be important, and he seems to be devoid of the psychological equipment that enables others to accept the limitations and realities of their circumstances. Paul creates for himself a fantasy life that forces him to lie continuously.
Paul’s conflict with the demands of the school curriculum, the learning of grammar, theorems, and history, reaches a point where the principal informs Paul’s father that the conflict between his son and the school’s teachers requires that some action be taken. The father takes Paul out of school, puts him to work as a “cash-boy” in a business office, and forbids him access to theaters or concerts. Paul’s compulsion to be lost in a world of sensual experience, a life of elegance, leisure, and pleasurable sensation, finally confronts the pressures on him to work, conform, and obey the rules of his humble and prosaic background. His life is now intolerable. His need for the “fairy tale” world that he tasted “behind the scenes” drives him to a plan that seems obvious to him and not even a struggle for him as he executes it.
Paul steals a large sum of money from his employers and makes his way to New York. Here, for eight fantasy days, he resides in splendor at the Waldorf hotel, one of the great palace hotels of the turn of the century. Dressed in new finery, Paul wines and dines and goes to concerts, drives around in carriages, and loses himself in pleasure. Finally, just before Paul has exhausted his finances, he reads in the Pittsburgh papers that his father, having paid back the stolen money, is coming to New York to search for his son. Paul has a vision of home, his dingy room, the drab social life of a provincial town, and the prospects of no further escape. The contrast with the last few days of his fairy-tale life is too much for him, and he takes the final steps that lead to his suicide. Thus the author closes Paul’s case.