It starts out in the evening of July 4. Ismael Rivera, leader of the Delancey Thrones, the largest gang in New York City, calls a grand assembly of street gangs to the Bronx. Gangs from all over the city, signaled by a Beatles song on the radio, head to the meeting place at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The instructions are that no one from any gang carry any weapons at all, except for a single hand gun which is a peace-offering to Ismael.
Among the gangs is the Coney Island Dominators, which is a black/Hispanic gang. The ones who are representing the Dominators are Papa Arnold, the leader, Hector, second-in-command, Lunkface, the strongest and most dangerous member, Bimbo, the advisor, The Junior, the youngest of the group and the gang's mascot, Dewey, the most level-headed member and Hinton, the gang's artist and central character of the story.
When everyone is at the meeting, Ismael announces and tells everyone that he wants a truce between them all, and for them to challenge "The Man" (society, otherwise called "The Others"). After the speech, some gangs couldn't help but to start fighting with each other. Not long after the police arrived, after being tipped off of a big rumble. After seeing this many gangs thought that Ismael had set them up. So they turned on him and used their gun (that was suppose to be a peace offering) to kill him.
The Dominators seemed to escape from the cops and make it to the Woodlawn Cemetery, but Papa Arnold is nowhere to be found, so Hector being second in command is put as the leader. He now needs to get everyone from the Bronx to Coney Island and make sure they're all safe. It will be a dangerous trip because they will have to go through all kinds of other gang turf.
They find a subway station, but after awhile, the train is stopped due to track work. So while they are on they way to looking for another train they run into the Boriquen Blazers, a Puerto Rican immigrant gang. Hector talks to the gang's leader to parley for safe passage, everything goes well until one of the gang's girls wants one of the Dominators' insignia pins (Mercedes symbols stolen off cars and converted into stick-pins). She makes fun of the Blazers' leader, challenging his manhood so for the sake of pride the leader tells the Dominators to take off their symbols for safe passage through there turf. As they start arguing, the Dominators head off to their destination. The Blazers don't retaliate because reinforcements hasn't arrived yet.
While they continue their journey, they realize that girl and a scout from the Blazers are tailing them. They quickly ambush both of them stealing the scout's switchblade then chasing him off. Lunkface convinces the girl to stay because he promises her a symbol of the gang and a rank among them. They then run into a lone individual and start a fight, they take turns stabbing the man with the switchblade they stole. With emotions rampant, they turn on the girl and gang rape her, then leave her laying in the street while they run to the next subway station.
When they arrive at the 96th Street and Broadway station, they run into a transit cop who is eyeing them suspiciously. The Dominators are aware that the cops are trying to round up every gang in the city, and they are still carrying the knife that they stabbed the man with, who is probably dead by now. They evade the cop by jumping off the train as he boards it, but more cops arrive as they flee. Dewey and Junior jump into an up town train, Hinton jumps onto the tracks into the subway tunnel, and Hector, Bimbo, and Lunkface run out of the station altogether.
With all three of them out of the station, they run into Riverside Park and decide to take off their gang symbols so they won't be arrested. While in the park, they find a nurse sitting on a bench. Lunkface takes a liking to her, but she only seems interested in Hector. So Hector lures her into a secluded spot where they all jump her. At first, it seems like she doesn't care, until Bimbo starts going through her purse, then she gets angry. In a attempt to make her be quiet Lunkface punches her, she then retaliates with surprising strength and starts yelling rape. They then run off when they can't overpower her, but are arrested not long after.
While Hinton is in the tunnel, he feels like a outsider and resents the gang. So, he starts tagging on the wall, and puts the gang down. He feels bad about then and puts their symbol up. Hinton then arrives at Times Square station, the place where they all suppose to meet. While waiting, he has sex in a public restroom with a prostitute then blows off a junkie that is trying to get money for giving sexual favors. Hinton then gets really hungry and eats with an inexplicable hunger. He then finds an arcade, which he plays shootout with a dummy sheriff, winning not once, but twice. Hinton then realizes they he has achieved everything he has with the gang, and wonders why he needs them.
Dewey and Junior finally meet up with Hinton and the trio head off to try to complete their journey home. Hinton takes over the role of leader, even though Dewey outranks Hinton. They run into a group of jocks that are returning from prom, that eye them challengingly. Hinton doesn't back down and when doing so feels a sense of moral victory.
The three finally make it back to their home of Coney Island. They then have a little celebration and with a feeling of a little anger and a little sense of victory, they spontaneously call out a rumble against the Lords, their rivals. They run to their hangout and challenge them, Hinton calls them out but he doesn't get a response from the Lords. So Hinton celebrates the win with tagging their symbol on the side of the Lords' hangout.
Hinton, Dewey, and Junior finally make it back to where their debs have been waiting, Hinton tells the girlfriends of Hector, Lunkface, and Bimbo that they didn't make it back. Papa Arnold’s girlfriend mentions that he had made it back home hours ago, Junior and Dewey then walk off with their girlfriends.
Hinton, not having a girlfriend goes home. When he gets there, he finds his mom having sex with her boyfriend. Hinton then attends to the baby, who was being neglected. He then talks to his half brother for a little bit, then crawls out into the fire escape and falls asleep, with his thumb in his mouth.
- Sol Yurick wrote the original book as a rebuttal to the romanticized view of street gangs presented in West Side Story (1961).
- The plot is based on Yurick's experience as a New York City welfare department worker.