'Five' Lowrey's passage from the center of his universe - Hockingport, Ohio - to nearby Ohio University is more than just a coming of age journey. If Thomsen Lowrey V had a middle initial it would be 'N' for naive. Five's choice of going to college seems his only alternative to following the family tradition of life on Ohio River towboats, as his father and three previous generations had done.
With only one hometown friend on campus - Denzel 'The Bear' Duerhof - Five is thrown into the turmoil of university life without a clue of a goal. That changes rapidly as his penchant for drawing brings him early notoriety and that rarity among freshmen, campus recognition. He finds classes, especially art courses, can be fun. He discovers beer drinking, pizza, a unique moneymaking scheme, and above all, a wonderful variety of girls.
His love affair with a town girl, Darcy Robinette, leads to even greater campus recognition and his first conflict between life and love. When fraternity rush rolls around, Five goes along with the crowd and finds himself a pledge to Alpha Chi Epsilon.
The Thirteen, as the ACE pledge class is known, move from early euphoria to the depths of despair as their pledgeship reveals some of the harsher aspects of brotherhood. When tragedy occurs, the Thirteen maintain their unity to prevail against a sadistic element within the ACE membership.
Five's role in this story of changing college life in the Fifties brings him into the realms of Korean War veterans, secret society intrigue, modern art and ultimately, vengeance for a murder which he and his pledge brothers seemingly cannot prove.