When readers open the pages of The Contender, Lipsyte makes them feel like they have stepped into the ring with Alfred Brooks, the novel's protagonist. But The Contender is not just about boxing. Rather, the main theme is being accountable for one's own failures and successes.
The Contender follows Alfred as he elevates his self-esteem in the midst of having dropped out of school, and lost his parents and his best friend. Alfred lives in the midst of poverty and drug abuse. Although his Aunt Pearl tries to guide him, she has her hands full putting food on the table for the four children in her charge. So Alfred is essentially on his own. He sees no need to complete his last year in high school, so he takes a meaningless job. For this, his neighborhood friends taunt him. "Why not sell drugs?" they sneer. The money is a lot better, they tell him, and he does not have to work for a white man.
The novel is set in the 1960s in Harlem. Civil rights is an all-too-new term. But boxing is big time. Names like Cassius Clay (soon to be changed to Mohammad Ali) are well known as thousands of people tune their televisions to the popular fights. It is an era of boxers becoming heroes. And Alfred wants to be one too. The question that he must answer is this: does he have what it takes to be a contender?
Lipsyte's novel has a few twists and turns in the plot; this is not a book fashioned from the traditional rags-to-riches cloth. Alfred has quite a few challenges to face. Along the way, he meets several surprises. The biggest surprises, he discovers, are found inside of him. He learns a lot about his personality, what he is made of, and what he is capable of doing. He learns to love the discipline and training of the boxer's life. But does he have what it takes to bloody his opponent in order to win? Readers must reach the last chapter of Lipsyte's book to find out.
Robert Lipsyte was a sports writer before he published his first work of fiction. The Contender has won the author awards as well as prestige for his skills in the genre of young adult literature.
Chapter 1 Summary
It is twilight, and seventeen-year-old Alfred is still waiting for James. James has never been this late, and Alfred’s Aunt Pearl says he should call James to see if he is sick. Alfred knows James is not sick. Aunt Pearl suspects James is “hangin’ out with those worthless punks,” but Alfred runs off before she can make him tell what he knows.
As he runs, Alfred remembers he has always been faster than James but wonders if he is anything more than James’s shadow. At the mouth of the alley, he stops and takes a deep breath before descending the basement steps into the clubroom. James is there, along with Hollis, Major, and Sonny. James is the only one who acknowledges Alfred. Alfred is the only one of them with a job and today was payday. The others insist he give them money, but he gave most of his money to Aunt Pearl.
Everyone but James begins to taunt Alfred for working at a grocery store for a white Jewish family; they mock him for being no better than a slave, mindlessly doing whatever demeaning task he is given. Alfred tries to defend his employer, the only one who would give him a job after he quit school; instead, he inadvertently reveals that the Epsteins have money in their cash register overnight on Fridays. Immediately the group leaves to rob the grocery store.
Alfred is disgusted with himself for betraying the Epsteins. Henry, a boy with a crippled leg, tries to talk to Alfred, but Alfred leaves the building. He does not have anywhere to go, however, and returns to the clubroom. Henry tells Alfred that Mr. Donatelli, the fight manager, has agreed to let Henry help at the gym, but Alfred is too distracted to listen and leaves again. Suddenly he remembers the Epsteins’ newly installed silent alarm and immediately leaves to warn James.
Several police cars are already there. Alfred hears someone holler stop and then fire a warning shot; the crowd murmurs that one perpetrator has been caught...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Alfred wakes up in Aunt Pearl’s bed; his jaw is swollen and her eyes are red-rimmed from crying and praying over him all night. She tells Alfred that Henry is the one who found him last night, wandering aimlessly with his eyes shut. Henry and his father brought Alfred home. He lies to his aunt about what happened to him; she knows he is lying but does not press him for the truth.
Aunt Pearl’s three daughters stare at him from the doorway until she shoos them away; she tells Alfred that James was arrested last night for trying to break into the Epsteins’ store. Alfred admits that James wanted him to participate in the robbery, but he will not admit that he was beaten up by anyone.
Aunt Pearl is distraught. She knows Alfred tries to be good, but it is so difficult when he lives here; she promises Alfred that one day they will leave this place. After she leaves for work, Alfred sleeps again. When he wakes up at noon, he feels much better. He eats the food Aunt Pearl left him and then grieves because his friend is now in jail. James is in prison because of him.
Alfred is safe inside, but on the streets both the clubroom bullies and the Epsteins will be looking for him. Perhaps he should just stay in bed forever. Finally he forces himself to get up; when he looks in the mirror, he realizes how much worse he could have looked and smiles at how ineffectual the big-talking Sonny, Hollis, and Major are at both beating people up and robbing a store. His grin disappears, though, when he remembers that James is in jail because he forgot about the alarm. Alfred goes back to bed and immediately falls asleep.
Alfred wakes at dusk and hears all of the usual street noises as he gets dressed and then goes outside. A little boy sitting on the stoop tells him that Major and Sonny are looking for him. Alfred sees Henry but hides before the crippled boy sees him because he does not feel like talking to anyone tonight. Soon he...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
The owner of the gym, Donatelli, surveys Alfred’s potential. He is five foot seven and weighs one hundred and twenty-four and a half pounds; he studies the boy’s hands and says Alfred will grow more. Donatelli instructs Alfred to sit one folding chair against the wall. Donatelli sits in the other.
Donatelli asks who sent him here and if he is frightened; a man must learn to control his fear and “make it work for him.” Alfred came here on his own and is clearly frightened; he has never boxed, but Donatelli notices that Alfred has done some fighting in the street.
Donatelli turns the lights on over the boxing ring and tells Alfred there is no place there for a fighter to hide. The boxing ring is just two men; each man wants to hit the other more times and harder than he gets hit. Unlike street fighting, boxing has rules and a referee to ensure that the rules are followed.
Many young boys come here wanting to get in the ring and hit people, but here a boy has to earn his opportunity by working hard. Most of the boys soon leave. Donatelli points to a heavy gray bag hanging from the ceiling and tells Alfred to go hit it, but not too hard. Alfred walks over and punches the bag with his left fist; a sharp pain runs up his arm to his shoulder and his knuckles burn but the bag barely moves.
Next Donatelli points to a small brown bag hanging in another corner of the room; he calls it the “peanut bag” and tells Alfred to “hit it a few times.” Alfred punches it with his right hand but misses it with his left. Donatelli explains that the heavy bag is used to teach power and build arm and shoulder muscle; the peanut bag teaches speed and timing. Before Alfred can step into the ring, he must be able to punch the heavy bag all day and “make the peanut bag sound like a machine gun.”
Alfred says he can try, and Donatelli assures him it is something nearly any kid can learn to do, but the bags...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
It is Sunday, and Aunt Pearl is thankful for one quiet day. Alfred did not sleep much, thinking about the gym, but he is more awake than usual as they walk to church this morning. They pass a nationalist rally, and a boy Alfred knew (and never liked) in high school tries to get him to join in the march they are having. Alfred is not interested and the boy insults him, calling him a “happy little darky.”
Alfred is angry. His eyes begin to sting and his stomach suddenly feels empty, but Aunt Pearl’s calm face temporarily calms him. Then her calmness makes him angry, for Aunt Pearl seems to be blind, deaf, and dumb.
The church is half full but Reverend Price is already behind the podium, preparing for...
(The entire section is 501 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Alfred runs early in the park until two policemen step out from behind the bushes and tell him to stop. They ask Alfred why he is running at this time of the morning; when he tells them he is in training for boxing, they do not believe him. One of them even teases him about being the next heavyweight champion. Alfred is a little afraid, but he tells them he has just started training with Mr. Donatelli, his manager.
This adds some credibility to his story, as one of the officers has heard of Donatelli, a man who has had three champions, two of them at one time. One of the officers asks the boy’s name; when Alfred tells him, the officer tells him to continue his training and he and his partner will watch for his picture...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Alfred grins as he bounds up the stairs to Donatelli’s Gym. It looks much different than last night, as half-naked men and boys are “jumping and twisting and jerking around,” and the sounds of work are everywhere. Several things are familiar; he sees one boy punching the gray bag and another punching the peanut bag. Two Puerto Ricans are jabbing in front of the mirror, and two fighters are dancing and ducking in the ring.
A sign says the cost for amateurs to train is two dollars a week; the weekly fee for professionals is five dollars. Both are payable in advance. Alfred has two dollars in his wallet, but there is no one around to take it. He sees neither Henry nor Donatelli and considers leaving, but he knows he...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Madison Square Garden is amazing to Alfred; he is stunned at how huge the venue is. The ring is in the center of a circle of seats rising up to the ceiling under hundreds of spotlights, and its ropes are wrapped in red velvet. Their seats are ten rows away from the ring.
A man wearing a tuxedo enters the ring and asks everyone to rise for the national anthem. A boy from the gym known as Jelly Belly teases Alfred for wearing a suit and tie, but when Alfred self-consciously starts to loosen his tie, he tells him not to do that because they “need a little class.” Willie Streeter is Donatelli’s fighter, and he has been touted as the next champion.
The preliminary fights begin, and Alfred struggles to...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Sonny, Major, and Hollis drag Alfred down to the clubroom. Alfred is frightened but asks where James is and what they want with him. The bullies plan to rob the Epsteins’ store again on Friday night, and they insist Alfred is going to help them.
Of course Alfred refuses, which surprises the others. Major tells him all he has to do is disconnect the wires on the security system and they’ll split the profits with him. Although he is frightened and despite repeated threats and questions, Alfred is adamant that there is “no chance at all” that he will do that, and he gets up to leave.
Major’s knife clicks, and Major tells Alfred he is going to give him a “squealer’s scar,” one cut from mouth to...
(The entire section is 410 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
When Alfred runs this morning, a policeman tells him he is “lookin’ good,” and Alfred runs just a little faster to show them just how good he looks. Alfred runs easily and feels good. He runs for more than an hour until the sun dries the dew and the traffic begins to scream around him. Other runners wave and smile at him, as if they are all somehow partners. When his side aches, he keeps running until he gets his second wind.
On the way home, he stops every twenty steps and does two deep knee bends. He tries to hop up the stairs to his house on alternating legs, and he almost makes it to the top. He touches his toes ten times before running into Aunt Pearl.
Alfred is so cheerful that she wonders if he...
(The entire section is 402 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
Alfred’s first week of training is tortuous. One night his arms are so sore that he wakes up moaning, “his arms as heavy as cement sacks, his fingers numb.” Charlene, one of his cousins, is concerned and wants to wake her mother, but Alfred says it was just a bad dream.
The second week is worse. The trainers and the other trainees all yell at him and laugh when the medicine ball knocks him over; he can hardly lift his arms up to his locker after the workouts.
That Sunday, Aunt Pearl takes him to Reverend Price and says he needs guidance; a part of him wants the reverend to make him quit. Price assumes Alfred is in trouble, but is unconcerned when he hears that Alfred is boxing.
(The entire section is 504 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
Major is the first one to see and greet Alfred when he arrives at the clubroom. He calls him “the champ” and acts like Alfred is his best buddy as he pulls him down into the dark clubroom.
Some people are dancing and others are sprawled around the room on floor pillows. Alfred refuses a drink because he is in training and asks where James is. Major says James will arrive later and again offers Alfred something to drink. When Alfred again refuses, Major encourages him to take a night off since he is already in shape and needs to have some fun.
June is Major’s girlfriend, and she takes Alfred’s arm and introduces him to her cousin Arlene. June briefly lights a match, and Alfred sees a “dark, chubby...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Alfred is lying alone in a pool of cold sweat on Saturday night. He alternates between wild hallucinations and passing out.
In the morning, Major calls to remind Alfred they made plans to go to Coney Island. Alfred does not want to go, but Major insists.
Alfred drinks coffee, something Donatelli says he should not drink, but Alfred remembers he is disgusted with him and drinks it anyway. Alfred allows himself to be led into a white Cadillac that Major stole. Major is a reckless driver, but Alfred begins to think it is better do something other than “waiting around for something to happen.”
The smell of food at Coney Island reminds Alfred that he has not eaten for nearly two days. Two...
(The entire section is 497 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Alfred is sparring with Angel. Angel grins as he slips past every one of Alfred’s jabs and follows with a punch to Alfred’s stomach.
Although the punches do not hurt him, Alfred gets angrier with every punch and finally closes his eyes and begins to “swing wildly.” Angel laughs and Henry calls time. Bud Martin pulls out Alfred’s mouthpiece and tells him he is only throwing one punch at a time instead of working his combinations. Henry calls time again and Alfred goes back into the ring.
It is now September, but it is still hot in the gym. Henry shouts that there are ten seconds left in the round, and Alfred knows he has one last chance to land a punch on the mocking Angel. As Alfred punches, Angel...
(The entire section is 492 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
It is October, four months since Alfred began training. Aunt Pearl is afraid he is sick because he is not going to run, only wants tea for breakfast, and is not going to work today. He solemnly and cryptically announces that today he is “resting himself for his big opportunity for advancement.” Aunt Pearl questions him a bit, but he promises to tell her his secret tonight.
Henry comes over at ten o’clock; at noon, they begin walking to the gym, and Alfred begins to get nervous. He stops and waves at the grocery store. Lou Epstein comes out and says Alfred looks good and that he will see the boy tonight. The empty gym seems huge. Alfred gives his official amateur boxing card to Henry, and Doctor Corey gives...
(The entire section is 510 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
When Alfred finally gets home, Aunt Pearl jumps up out of concern for him. His face is a mess and he is limping, but he tells his aunt it that it “looks worse than it is.”
He does not want anything to eat, but he does want some milk. Doctor Corey already gave him some aspirin, so Aunt Pearl just gets his bed ready. Alfred wonders why she has not asked him any questions, but she reminds him that the last time he came up looking like this, he claimed he fell off an old stone fence.
Alfred smiles and splits his lip open again. Aunt Pearl learned about the fight from Lou Epstein; Alfred did not tell her because he was afraid she might try to stop him. Now that Alfred is nearly a man, she knows that if she...
(The entire section is 428 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
Tonight’s fight is against Griffin, and he is raining blows on Alfred’s face. Alfred’s eyes are swelling and his nose is full of dried blood. Donatelli, Martin, and Henry are all hollering at him to press Griffin, but Griffin evades every jab Alfred throws: “By the end of the first round, his face feels as if it has been stung by a hundred bees.”
In the corner, Alfred tries to explain how fast Griffin moves and how fast his gloves are, but no one understands him because of the ice bag on his face.
Alfred hears someone in the crowd laugh, and then Griffin is once again “tapping away at his chin, his eyes, his mouth, his nose.” The bell rings and Henry tells Alfred that his only chance to win is...
(The entire section is 469 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
At a family dinner, Uncle Wilson congratulates Alfred and asks about his next fight; he has a bout next week and another before Christmas. Both Aunt Pearl and Aunt Dorothy are worried about him getting hurt, but Wilson says that top fighters have great opportunities. When his son, Jeff, says he did some boxing in college, however, Wilson reprimands him for endangering his brain and wasting his talent. Obviously Wilson does not approve of boxing and is just happy that Alfred is doing well at something.
Jeff would like to be able to carry himself better, and when Wilson realizes Jeff is not sure whether he wants to go to Africa like his father wants, Wilson is furious. He is not going to allow his son, with so much...
(The entire section is 500 words.)
Chapter 18 Summary
Barnes is Alfred’s next opponent. He is not as quick as Griffin or as strong as Rivera, but he is “rough and dirty in the clinches.” Barnes stomps on Alfred’s toes, pounds his kidneys, and holds his arms. Donatelli screams for Alfred to break away from Barnes, but Alfred’s legs feel heavy and his feet feel as if they are glued to the canvas.
The crowd boos, but Alfred does not care. He halfheartedly jabs out of habit, and only then to keep Barnes at a distance. When Barnes tries to duck away from the jab and stumbles, putting his face a mere six inches from Alfred’s right glove, Henry screams at Alfred to punch Barnes; but in a flash Alfred sees Griffin’s “twitching body” and does not throw the punch....
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Chapter 19 Summary
This fight does not matter, so Henry wonders why Alfred is so nervous. It matters to Alfred. Henry’s leg has not been bothering him as much since he started working for Donatelli and training Alfred. Once Henry no longer has to spend so much time training Alfred, he will begin working with some of the new young boxers.
Henry bought Alfred’s robe and wants Henry to keep it. If not for Alfred, Henry would still just be cleaning the gym; he will never forget Alfred; he is the first fighter Henry trained.
Spoon arrives and gives Alfred his night-school reading list. He and Betty will help him do some reading over Christmas break. Spoon tells Alfred privately that he has made arrangements for James to go to a...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Chapter 20 Summary
When Alfred arrives at the apartment, he is smiling and eager to tell Aunt Pearl all about Jelly Belly’s new job at a fancy restaurant. When he starts to tell her about the fight, she stops him and says the police were there looking for James. Tonight James broke into the Epsteins’ grocery store—right through the front window. He got away but cut himself badly, so the police are sure he is not too far away.
Before Aunt Pearl can say anything more, Alfred is out the door and “running hard, into the bitter night wind.” The park is dark and silent and white with new snow. When he reaches the cave, Alfred hears heavy breathing and calls to James. Although Alfred has come to help, James tells him to go away. Alfred...
(The entire section is 492 words.)