William “Studs” Lonigan, nearly fifteen years old, graduates from St. Patrick’s Grammar School, “the old dump,” and surreptitiously puffs a cigarette in the bathroom as he contemplates his future as son, Catholic, and American. His proud parents are satisfied with raising all of their children within the Catholic religion; they confidently count on the Church and its unquestioned authority to provide all the guidance the family needs. At a service attached to the graduation ceremony, they hear the parish priest describe very graphically the omnipresence of sin in society as well as the daily temptations of Satan’s attempts to recruit adherents to unholy causes. At a party afterward, Studs and his crowd play kissing games. That night, talking over the evening’s activities with his sister, Studs begins to have evil thoughts and to experience sinful feelings. He fears the imminent punishment of God; before dropping off to sleep, the youngster nervously prays and wonders about contrition.
With only the ease of summer stretching before him, Studs aimlessly roams neighborhood streets and vaguely dreams of performing feats of heroism. He plays soccer with tomboy Helen Shires but really longs to impress Lucy Scanlan, who he hopes might witness his prowess. Studs and Helen talk about spying on a nearby “can-house,” where unmentionable activities are presumed to occur. A truculent Weary Reilley joins their ball game but plays too aggressively, deliberately trying to hurt Helen, cursing at them all the while. Studs and Weary fight, and an enthusiastic crowd soon gathers to encourage the vicious battle. In standing up to the notorious Weary, the feared local bully, Studs becomes a hero and establishes his reputation as a “tough.” In days following, when he walks the streets, Studs hears even the adults speaking his name; he is a celebrity. Life is promising.
Studs attracts the company of old-time street fighters and, from one of them named Old Man O’Brien, hears vigorous expressions of neighborhood prejudice, particularly that blacks and Jews are ruining the city. Studs unquestioningly accepts this view and accompanies other hoodlums on expeditions to beat and to brutalize such racial and religious interlopers. When Studs’s father mildly reprimands him for staying out late, the youngster reacts with anger and ignores any attempted discipline. Studs fantasizes about a relationship with Lucy. Reflecting on the purity of Catholic girls, he spends one euphoric afternoon in Lucy’s company, sitting on a tree limb while they sing and chat about the future. Studs feels that moment to be a turning point in his life. As the summer progresses, however, he often walks the streets and parks alone. Disrespectful of adult playground supervisors, Studs bullies youngsters and, after starting a fight at a baseball game, is invited by witnesses to join an older, tougher group of associates.
Studs now openly smokes and chews tobacco. He begins to drink. He stands on the street corner and joins fellow loafers in ethnic slurs, racial jokes, and sex talk that he does not quite understand. Studs regards the poolroom as home, derides school as irrelevant, and cynically wisecracks at ordinary people going about their daily business. Studs’s worried father tries to instigate a man-to-man talk, but the weak attempt fails. Studs loses his virginity when he joins a “gangshag.” He feels he is a man. The ending of the summer is a violently formative experience for Studs. He dreams of some amorphous, unplanned future. He feels free but uneasy.
One year later Studs, truant and school dropout, ponders about enlisting for war service, but he and his friends are...
(The entire section is 1510 words.)