In David's first reminiscences, he is a young man in Brooklyn trying to come to terms with the death of his mother and with his own sexuality. After a brief romantic fling with a boy named Joey, David feels that he is beginning to outgrow his house. He leaves for Paris at the age of seventeen, uncertain whether he is running from or searching for himself.
The night that David meets Giovanni, he tries to be coy and indirect, but he actually shows almost no resistance as Giovanni leads him back to his room. David has already proposed to his girlfriend Hella, now in Spain, and the tryst with Giovanni cannot but end badly. Yet he manages to keep the inevitable end concealed from himself, and he and Giovanni fall into dizzy-eyed love, willing to forget about the world for the sake of each other.
At some point, David tells Giovanni about Hella and her imminent return. The idea of Hella seems to follow him around like a shadow, but Giovanni refuses to believe that the arrival of his fiancée will make any difference. Meanwhile, Guillaume, feeling that his advances toward Giovanni have been thwarted, fires him in despicable fashion, accusing him of being both a bastard and a thief. Giovanni is desperate and feels that David is the only source of stability and hope in his life. When David hears that Hella has arrived, and leaves without telling Giovanni, it is clear that things are going to turn ugly.
After three days, David and Hella encounter Jacques and Giovanni in a bookstore. Giovanni makes a scene, but David manages to shield the situation from Hella. The next evening, he returns to Giovanni's room to end things, but he has no idea how hard it will be. Giovanni is in tears. He curses David and accuses him of never having loved anyone, and he reveals a secret from his past in Italy that explains why he is in such a desperate state. When David leaves, it seems that Giovanni is caught in a whirlpool of despair, which is confirmed a few weeks later when Guillaume is found dead in his bar.
Giovanni pleads guilty to murdering Guillaume, and he is sentenced to death. David is overcome with guilt and remorse for his former lover. Hella can understand his grief, but doesn't know the reasons for its intensity. After a fight, she follows David and finds him flirting with a sailor at a bar. She leaves him alone in his guilt, and it seems as if Giovanni's death has become David's own. The end of the novel is not without a degree of hope, but there is no rebirth here, just a limp gesture toward the impossibility of knowing the future.