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We meet John T. Unger, a sixteen-year-old who grew up in an affluent family in a small town called Hades, Mississippi. He is now heading off to St. Midas' reparatory school outside of Boston – the most expensive and exclusive prep school in the world.
The night of his departure, John says a tearful good-bye to his parents, who advise him to remember who he is and where he comes from.
So John heads off to prep school. Two years pass uneventfully. John spends his summers with the other (much more wealthy) boys at various fashionable locales. He is struck by how all of his friends' rich fathers seem to be all the same.
In John's second year at St. Midas', a new student enrolls. His is a "quiet, handsome" boy named Percy Washington (1.12).
Percy keeps mostly to himself, but chooses to form a friendship with John. He always keeps quiet about his family and hometown – even to John.
Eventually, Percy asks John to spend the summer with him in his home "in the West" (1.12). John agrees.
Finally, once they are in the train, alone together, on the way to Percy's home, Percy starts talking about his family. "My father," he says, "is the richest man in the world" (1.14).
John doesn't know what to say, so he starts rattling off figures about how many millionaires there are in the world.
But Percy quickly silences him by establishing that his father is much, much richer than all of them put together.
John is glad about this. "I like very rich people," he says (1.21). "The richer a fella is, the better I like him" (1.22).
Finally, Percy reveals that his father has one enormous diamond. A diamond as big as the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.