The story covers a period of over twenty years, beginning in 1909 when Tom and his friend are children and continuing to the present, to 1931. It is clear from the beginning, from the time that he was a child, that Tom and his brother are products of the slums of New York, but at the same time it seems evident that Tom himself has a bad streak that has little to do with his milieu. After all, his brother is a product of the same world and turns out different. Tom and his friend Matt work by delivering buckets of beer to neighborhood saloons, but they fall under the sway of the Fagin-like Putty Nose and become petty thieves first, later armed robbers. They are thus well on their way to a life of crime from the time their youth, and they grow up in this world and continue, graduating to more vicious and dangerous crimes as they do so. The slums in which they live offer considerable motivation for young men like this to do whatever they have to in order to get out and make it in the wider world, and always there is the American Dream as a promise of what should be, contrasted with the way they actually have to live.
The two young men do grow up and become big-time gangsters. By this time, Prohibition is the law of the land, and they become rumrunners. They are also involved in the bootleg wars where different