When Jack returns home one night, he is startled by a large, ugly dog who growls at him as he enters. Dwight introduces the dog as "Champion," and tells Jack that he bought the dog with the Winchester .22 rifle Roy gave to Jack in Salt Lake City. Jack is livid, and Rosemary demands that Dwight return the dog and replace Jack's rifle. Dwight agrees, but dog remains and the rifle never reappears. Dwight brags that Champion is a hunting dog, but Champion cowers at the sound of a gunshot when Dwight takes him hunting. Dwight brings Rosemary on a hunting trip that is meant to last a week, but ends after only three days. Rosemary tells Jack that Champion got lost, then relieved himself all over the seats of the car.
One night, Champion startles Jack so violently that Jack hits him over the head with a sponge mop. Jack strikes the dog repeatedly, but afterwards feels terribly guilty for the harm he has inflicted. Jack apologizes to Champion, speaking in a soft voice and stroking the dog affectionately. From then on, Champion has a special affinity for Jack, and is always at his heels. When Jack sneaks out of the house late at night to joyride in the car, he takes Champion with him to keep Champion from barking and waking up the whole house.
Late one night, Jack gets the car stuck deep in mud, and a man driving past gives him and Champion a ride back to Chinook. Jack does not get home until very early that morning and stays home from school that day. He is exhausted and sleeps until lunchtime. When Jack wakes up, Dwight confronts him about taking the car. Coincidentally, Dwight met the man who gave Jack and Champion a ride home. Jack pretends not to know what Dwight is talking about, and Dwight, enraged by Jack's defiance, jumps on top of him, pounding Jack with his fists. Dwight continues to beat him, but Jack tries to fight back.
Eventually, Champion kills a number of neighborhood cats, and it is ordered that he be killed. Dwight drives the dog upriver and shoots him. Jack notices that Dwight does not bring a shovel with him, meaning that he does not care enough about Champion to bury him.
At the start of his freshman year at Concrete High, Jack brings home good grades, although he though he earns them by copying from other students. When Jack gets involved with the school's troublemakers, his grades drop drastically. This group includes Chuck Bolger, a troubled boy with a gentle side who Jack seems to like the most of the entire group. Jack's circle of friends also includes Psycho, a stupid boy who has been arrested for theft and for kidnapping a cat, and Jerry Huff, who is handsome, vain, and a relentless bully. Jack does not like Huff at all. Arch Cook, Huff's cousin, is mildly mentally handicapped and relatively harmless. The boys spend much of their time at Arch's sister Veronica's apartment. Veronica wears sexy outfits and makes frequent passes at Chuck. Every time Jack has the opportunity to be with one of the women who is drawn to his group of friends, he backs down and wishes for a girl he can love. This girl turns out to be Rhea Clark, who moves to Concrete from North Carolina during Jack's freshman year. She dances with Jack at a school dance, but shortly after begins dating another boy and does not even remember Jack when she passes him in the hallway.
One afternoon, Jack and Chuck are drinking alcohol on the roof of the school. Jack passes out and then regains consciousness. Still drunk, Jack steps out onto a tree branch that hovers above a gully paved with cement. The branch snaps and Jack is hurled toward the concrete below. The fall knocks Jack unconscious, but he is eventually roused by the sound of voices calling for him. Jack is happy lying there in the gully, knowing that people are looking for him and care about him, and does not answer the voices. Jack sleeps in the gully that night feeling satisfied. When Jack returns home the next morning, Dwight is amused by Jack's story.
Champion evokes Jack's compassion because the dog reminds him so much of himself. Jack feels that, like Champion, he is neglected and unloved by his family, and feels as if his life were unimportant to them. Jack's sympathy for Champion is only exacerbated by the guilt he feels for striking him, especially because his violence toward the dog is reminiscent of the violence that Jack has suffered at Dwight's hands. Jack's newfound awareness that he is capable of inflicting the same kind of cruelty as Dwight both startles and scares him. Jack's ongoing desire for independence is also what inclines him to sneak out in the car at night, driving a little further each time and hoping that someday he will have the courage to just keep driving. Jack's feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy become debilitating when he cannot bring himself to confess his love for Rhea Clark. He is petrified that she will laugh at him, or even be insulted by his admission of love. Even when Rhea agrees to dance with him, he attributes this to her naivete—because she is a new girl at school, Jack reasons, she must know nothing of his reputation. This rationale fuels Jack's already strong desire to escape to a new place where he can create the life he imagines for himself. Jack's lack of self- confidence is so severe that he fears disappointing even the promiscuous girls who throw themselves at him. Jack also rejects these girls, however, because he is strong enough to maintain his principles, even in the face of temptation. Although it may seem strange that Jack is pleased to have fallen into a concrete-covered ditch, and that he chooses to spend the night there, this gully should be seen as a place of emotional relief. As he listens to his friends calling out to him, expressing concern for his well-being, Jack is refreshed and reassured. Although he is lying bruised and battered at the bottom of a ditch, Jack, for the first time, can finally experience his fantasy of being loved and wanted, as he is finally in his "perfect place."