Francis Cassavant returns to his hometown of Frenchtown. His face has been horribly disfigured by the war: his nose, eyebrows and teeth are gone, and his cheeks are not healing. He wears a bandage, a white silk scarf and a baseball cap to cover his face to prevent people seeing his face and recoiling, and also as a disguise.
Using some of his back pay from his time in hospital he rents a room from a woman he used to run errands for: she doesn’t recognise him. He goes to church and prays, including a prayer for Larry LaSalle, and reveals that he plans to kill him.
He recalls being in hospital and his friend joking he could go out with a blind girl. We learn that Francis is a decorated war hero and that he is still in love with his childhood sweetheart, Nicole Renard.
Chapter 2 and 3
Francis remembers meeting Nicole for the first time, in seventh grade, at school. Although he has no contact with her, she becomes friends with Marie LeCroix, a girl who lives in the same building as Francis. He is too shy to talk to her but enjoys seeing her come and go.
Francis walks around Frenchtown, and visits Nicole’s old house. He knows she and her family are gone, because a fellow soldier told him during the war. When he goes to the house, the woman living there has no idea where the Renards have gone. That night, he dreams of the war, and of when he killed two German soldiers, the day before a grenade ruined his face. The chapter finishes with his new ‘mission’: to get LaSalle when he returns to Frenchtown.
Chapter 4 and 5
Francis bumps into another Frenchtown veteran, a man a few years older than him, Arthur Rivier. He does not recognise Francis, but takes him to the men’s club and buys him a beer, where he meets the other ex-soldiers who have returned to Frenchtown.
Francis visits the ‘Wreck Centre’. This had been a town hall until a bride and groom were machine gunned at their wedding reception – then it became a ‘bad luck place’. After being left empty for years it was converted to being a Recreation Centre. A charismatic and handsome youth leader, Larry LaSalle, held dance, music and craft classes at the centre. Francis spent most of his free time there. Nicole joined the dance classes.
Francis has been in town almost a month and has become a regular fixture at the men’s club. One afternoon he asks if anyone knows when LaSalle is coming back. The veterans toast LaSalle and the barman brings out the scrap book of his exploits. Arthur recognises Francis but accepts his wish to remain anonymous to the others.
Chapter 7 and 8
Francis remembers LaSalle teaching him table tennis. He did this to boost Francis's confidence and Francis became very good at table tennis. LaSalle organised a weekend of events, with a table-tennis tournament on the Saturday and a musical on the Sunday in which Nicole stars. Nicole speaks to Francis to wish him luck and he finally gets over his nerves. He wins the tournament and then plays LaSalle, to satisfy the other kids. He beats LaSalle, as LaSalle lets him win, but only Francis knows this.
Nicole calls him her champion and invites him to the party she's throwing after the musical the next day. But the next day Pearl Harbor is attacked, the bombing by the Japanese that led the USA into the war. The news shocks everyone and the party breaks up. The mood in the town changes.
In the present Francis finds Arthur drunk, slumped in an alley, obviously traumatised by the war. Arthur says he wants to talk about the things that nobody ever usually talks about, about how they were scared when they were fighting.
Arthur says that none of them were heroes. They were just boys: homesick and scared. “Nothing glamorous, like the write-ups in the papers or the newsreels. We weren’t heroes. We were only there…”
LaSalle was one of the first men to enlist, the Monday after that weekend. The Wreck Centre closed. Francis and Nicole start going to the movies together. LaSalle makes the news when he captures an enemy machine gun nest and saves his entire platoon; he gets a Silver Star and is Frenchtown’s first big hero.
Chapter 10 and 11
Francis remembers being treated in England. Initially he didn’t cover his face, but on a trip to London his wounds made a small boy cry. In the present he burns the addresses of the doctor and his friend from treatment, so that he has no future, apart from killing LaSalle.
He remembers LaSalle’s homecoming in 1943. The whole town, especially the kids, cheered him home. After a whole town party in the City Hall, LaSalle takes the teenagers to the Wreck Centre, re-opened for the occasion. On the way Francis promises Nicole he’ll never leave her. They all dance, play music and table-tennis. One by one the kids leave. When only LaSalle, Francis and Nicole are left, LaSalle tells Francis to go. Nicole says he should stay, but he does what LaSalle tells him. He leaves them dancing in the dark but does not leave the building. After the record ends he hears noises, but does not move. He realises LaSalle is sexually assaulting Nicole but does nothing. Then Nicole runs out of the hall, crying and her blouse torn. She sees him and he realises she feels betrayed. She leaves and Francis stays hidden in the dark. LaSalle does not know what Francis has seen.
Chapter 12 and 13
Four days after the **** Francis manages to see Nicole. He is helpless to know what to say; she is angry and blames him. She tells him to go away. He climbs the church steeple, intending to kill himself, but can’t, not while soldiers all over the world are dying ‘Noble deaths. The deaths of heroes’. The next day he changes the date on his birth certificate and goes to enlist.
In the present Francis hears his landlady and her neighbour gossiping: LaSalle has returned.
Francis goes with his gun to LaSalle’s apartment. He is very ill and a shadow of his former self, but welcomes Francis. LaSalle still has the trick of making Francis feel good about himself. Francis denies he is a hero – he says he fell on the grenade because he wanted to die, not save the other soldiers. He reveals he wanted to die because of LaSalle’s **** of Nicole. LaSalle tells him he couldn’t have stopped him anyway. Francis brings his gun out. LaSalle says that he loves ‘sweet young things’. This makes Francis think that Nicole was not the only one he has attacked. Francis tells LaSalle that he used to be their hero, because 'You made us better than we were'. LaSalle asks if one sin can wipe out all the good things he’s done. He is not afraid of the gun, and shows Francis his own, telling him he plans to kill himself. He tells Francis that whether he knew it or not he fell on the grenade to save his comrades. Francis leaves. Once he is outside he hears a single gunshot from upstairs. LaSalle has killed himself.
Chapter 15 and 16
Francis goes to the convent to try to trace Nicole. Her family left town, but he gets her address. He plans to see her then kill himself.
He goes to visit Nicole. She is still in the final year of school. She is changed, but tells him she is sorry for blaming him. She is recovering, but slowly. He still loves her, but though she feels affection for him, she doesn’t want to see him again. She tells him to write about his experiences in the war.
In the railway station Francis reflects on the ‘heroes’ and all the scared kids who went to war. He thinks of writing about them, and finding the number of the doctor who wants to reconstruct his face. He goes to catch a train as the book ends.