Chapter one begins with these ominous words: "They murdered him." Jerry Renault, we quickly learn, has been tackled hard in football practice, but he gets up nevertheless, gamely trying to prove his merit to the Coach. He is a high school freshman trying out for Trinity's varsity team. The Coach repeatedly runs plays that result in Jerry getting thrown hard to the ground. The Coach approaches Jerry to ask him why such a skinny kid is playing quarterback. After practice, Jerry barely makes it back to the locker room before vomiting.
The next chapter introduces Obie and Archie, two members of a mysterious student group called The Vigils. Archie, a senior, is the Assigner for the group, and Obie is both Secretary and a kind of lackey for Archie. They meet in the bleachers, even though Obie is late for his after-school job at a grocery store. Archie invents ugly and cruel mental punishments - "assignments" - for various members of the student body. One of Obie's jobs is to write down the assignments Archie dreams up, and the names of the students who have been picked to perform the pranks. Archie taunts Obie for a while about his job, but the two eventually get all the names down. Goober (a.k.a. Roland Goubert, who is trying out for football with Jerry) and Jerry are brought up in relation to assignments.
Obie has a notebook with information on everyone at the school, and from this notebook he learns that Jerry's father is a pharmacist, and that his mother has recently died of cancer. Archie gives Goober an assignment called "Therapy," and Jerry gets an assignment called "Chocolates." Obie reflects, thinking of how he missed trying out for football, and says that "Life is sad, sometimes." Archie retorts, "Life is shit."
Chapter three finds Jerry in a shop, contemplating a pornographic magazine. He puts the magazine back, and goes to the bus stop. Various hippies are across the street in the Common, and as Jerry waits one of them asks him why he's staring. They have a slightly argumentative exchange, ending with the hippie telling Jerry that he's missing a lot of things in the world.
When chapter four begins, Archie has been called into Brother Leon's office. They discuss the chocolate sale, and Archie is a bit surprised to learn that there are twenty thousand boxes of chocolates for this year's chocolate sale - twice the number that were for sale last year. Brother Leon, who serving as Acting Headmaster while the real Headmaster is in the hospital, has obtained Mother's Day chocolates at a cut rate, because the holiday has passed. They plan to remove the ribbons that read Mother and sell the chocolates for two dollars apiece, making a profit of almost a dollar on each box. This year Brother Leon has overextended the school funds, and perhaps his authority, and wants to cover his tracks by selling a huge number of chocolates.
Archie wonders why Brother Leon is talking to him about the chocolate sale in such a manner. The teacher muses that, while the boys at Trinity are middle-class, their families are not wealthy enough to permit a raise in the tuition. All this is meant to impress upon Archie that the chocolate sale must be a huge success. Archie is to use his influence in The Vigils to compel the boys to sell all the chocolates. While the words are never spoken by Brother Leon directly, Leon knows that Archie has influence in the secret group that rules the school. Archie pushes back, but Leon levels his gaze at him and Archie remembers that Leon could ruin his grade in algebra. Archie leaves saying that The Vigils will help.
When the next chapter begins, Archie is at a Vigils meeting, talking to Goober. Carter, a football player and the president of The Vigils, is also there. It is acknowledged that while Carter is the titular head of The Vigils and the "muscle" of the group, the real leader of The Vigils is the Assigner.
Archie assigns Goober the "Therapy" job, and tells him that he must make arrangements to stay out all night and bring a screwdriver. Goober is told to loosen all of the screws holding the furniture together in Room Nineteen at Trinity. Goober protests that this is a big job, but Archie tells him he will have all night to do it. Then the time comes when the Assigner, Archie, must reach into a black box containing six marbles: five white and one black. If he draws out a white marble, the assignment stands; if he draws the one black one, Archie must perform the assignment himself. This policy was instituted to keep the Assigner under control. Archie draws out a white marble, signaling that Goober must go ahead with the assignment.
Trinity High School is presented as a fairly typical suburban, middle-class, Catholic institution. It is not particularly distinguished in the academic realm, but it is certainly better than the schools around it. College preparation, good marks, and performance in extracurricular activities - particularly sports - are the goals. The subtext of the novel is that too much emphasis is put on these things, to the detriment of the pursuit of real and meaningful learning and spiritual development. In such an environment, it is implied, groups like The Vigils flourish, feeding on fear and insecurity.
The Vigils are a supposedly secret group of popular or otherwise powerful boys who effectively run the social life and much of the behavior of the entire student body. The boys with the most power, Carter and Archie, represent physical and intellectual strength, respectively. Archie became the group's Assigner because of his cool intelligence and fertile imagination, and his assignments (such as unscrewing the furniture nails) show his ability to come up with audacious and potentially very damaging pranks.
The only character with the wherewithal to challenge The Vigils is Jerry Renault - a boy who, on some level, is still trying to fit into the Trinity mold. He wants to be on the football team so much that he will allow himself to be repeatedly pummeled for it. He forms a friendship with Goober, and he wants to have a girlfriend, but his mother's recent death and his father's detachment create in him a sort of separateness from the other boys. He has just enrolled at Trinity, so he hasn't yet ascertained the rank hypocrisy in the running of the school.
Cormier's transparent style lends itself to short chapters (some are no more than three pages) and clipped conversations. The exchange between Leon and Archie in chapter four is one of the longest in the novel. There are very few long or difficult words in this book - the word choice and syntax is almost always vernacular conversational, and descriptions are kept to a minimum. Only the barest outlines of people and scenes are given; the reader is left to imagine how people and things look. The omniscient narrator is more likely to describe the course of a character's thoughts than the look of a room or the expression on someone's face.
These first chapters introduce a tone of impending doom. The chocolate sale seems an almost insurmountable hurdle, and the cruelty of The Vigils is immediately clear. Jerry has become a sympathetic character already, but he is still an unknown quantity. The groundwork for the development of the story has begun, and the cast of major characters has been introduced. The complex interrelationship of school hierarchy, Vigils tyranny, and the boys' social networks has been hinted at, and will be further fleshed out in the coming chapters.
The author himself has explained in an article ("A Character by Any Other Name") that the naming of his characters often has significance. Archie, the villain, has a name that is both meaningful and harsh-sounding. Jerry, on the other hand, has a name that sounds softer, like a "good guy." Many of the characters have names that are clues to their personalities and motivations.