The novel focuses on the protagonist Henry Chinaski. It begins with Chinaski's early memories. As the story progresses, the reader follows his life through the school years and into young adulthood.
Chinaski relates that he has an abusive father, and his mother does nothing to stop his father's abuse. She is, in fact, a victim of her husband's brutality as well. Henry is not athletic but wants to be and therefore tries hard to improve. Football is difficult for him, but he enjoys the violence that comes with it. He has only slightly better results in Baseball.
As Chinaski progresses through grammar school, the focus of Henry's attention is on sports, violence and girls. And as Henry grinds his way through Junior High School he discovers the manifold pleasures of alcohol and masturbation. As Henry begins High School, his father, who is experiencing inter-generational downward mobility, makes him go to a private school where he fits in even less amongst all the well-heeled, spoiled rich kids with their flashy, colorful, convertible sports cars and beautiful girlfriends.
To make matters worse, Chinaski develops horrible acne that is so severe that he has to undergo painful, and mostly ineffective, treatments from the doctor. He becomes a human guinea pig for every experimental treatment that comes down the pike. The reader eventually follows Chinaski to college and reads of Henry's attempt to find a worthwhile occupation.