Paul has been suspended from his high school in Pittsburgh. As the story opens, he arrives at a meeting with the school’s faculty members and principal. He is dressed in clothes that are simultaneously shabby and debonair. The red carnation he wears in his buttonhole particularly offends the faculty members, who think the flower sums up Paul’s flippant attitude. Paul is tall and narrow-shouldered, with enlarged pupils that remind one of a drug addict’s eyes.
The faculty members have a difficult time articulating their true feelings about Paul. Deep down, they believe that Paul loathes, feels contempt for, and is repulsed by them. They lash out at Paul, but he betrays no emotion. Instead, he smiles throughout the barrage of criticism. After Paul leaves, the drawing master says aloud that Paul’s mother died in Colorado just after Paul was born. Privately, the drawing master remembers seeing Paul asleep one day in class and being shocked at his aged appearance. As the teachers depart, they feel embarrassed about their viciousness toward Paul.
Paul goes straight to Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh, where he works as an usher. Because he is early, he goes to the Hall’s gallery and looks at paintings of Paris and Venice. He loses himself in one particular painting, a “blue Rico.” After changing in the dressing room, where he roughhouses with the other ushers, Paul begins to work. He is excellent at his job, performing every aspect of it with great enthusiasm. He is annoyed when his English teacher arrives and he must seat her, but he comforts himself with the knowledge that her clothes are inappropriate for so fancy a venue.
The symphony begins, and Paul loses himself in the music. As he listens, he feels full of life. After the performance, he trails the star soprano to her hotel, the Schenley, and imagines vividly that he is following her inside the luxurious building. As if awaking from a dream, Paul realizes that he is actually standing in the cold, rainy street. He dreads returning to his room, with its ugly knickknacks and pictures of John Calvin and George Washington.
As he reaches Cordelia Street, where he lives, Paul feels depressed and repulsed by the commonness and ordinariness of his middle-class neighborhood. Unable to face his father, Paul sneaks into the basement, where he stays awake all night imagining what would happen if his father mistook him for a burglar and shot him—or recognized Paul in time, but later in life wished that he had shot his son.
The next day, Paul sits on the porch with his sisters and father. Many people are outside, relaxing. It is a pleasant scene, but Paul is disgusted by it. His father chats with a young clerk whom he hopes Paul will emulate. This clerk took his boss’s advice: he married the first woman he could and began having children immediately. The only tales of business that interest Paul are those of the iron magnates’ expensive adventures in Cairo, Venice, and Monte Carlo. He understands that some “cash boys” (low-level employees) eventually find great success, but he does not enjoy thinking about the initial cash-boy work.
After managing to get carfare from his father by pretending that he needs to study with a friend, Paul goes to see Charley Edwards, a young actor who lets Paul hang around his dressing room and watch rehearsals. The narrator notes that Paul’s mind has not been “perverted” by novels, as his teachers suspect. Rather, Paul gets pleasure solely from theater and music, which are the only things that make him feel alive.
At school, Paul tells outrageous lies about his close friendships with the members of the theater company and the stars who perform at Carnegie Hall. Paul’s effort to prove that he is better than his classmates and teachers winds up alienating him from them. In the end, the principal speaks with Paul’s father, and Paul is forbidden to return to school, Carnegie Hall, or the theater where Charley Edwards works. The theater company’s members hear about Paul’s lies and find them comical. Their lives are difficult, not the glamorous dream worlds that Paul imagines.
Paul takes an overnight train and arrives in New York City, where he buys expensive clothes, hats, and shoes. After purchasing silver at Tiffany’s, he checks into the Waldorf, paying for his rooms in advance. The eighth-floor rooms are nearly perfect. All that’s missing are flowers, which Paul sends a bellboy out to buy. The narrator explains what has happened to make all this possible: Paul got a job with Denny & Carson’s, and when asked to take a deposit to the bank, he deposited only the checks and pocketed $1,000 in cash. He is using this stolen money to fund his spree in New York.
After a nap, Paul takes a carriage ride up Fifth Avenue. He notices banks of flowers, bright and vibrant, protected by glass from the snow. He dines at the hotel while listening to an orchestra play the Blue Danube. He feels utterly content. The next day, Paul meets a rich boy who attends Yale. The two of them enjoy a night on the town, staying out until 7 a.m. The narrator notes that although the boys begin the evening in a happy mood, they end it in a bad one.
A lovely week passes, and then Paul finds that his theft has been discovered and reported by the Pittsburgh newspapers. According to the stories, his father has paid back the $1,000 and is headed to New York to find his son. Paul enjoys one last dinner at the Waldorf. The next morning, he wakes up, hungover, and looks at the gun he purchased on his first day in New York. In the end, he takes cabs to a set of railroad tracks in Pennsylvania and leaps in front of an oncoming train. Before he dies, he recognizes “the folly of his haste” and thinks of the places that he will never see.