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 but several others got away. Alfred goes to the small cave in the park where he knows James will go if he managed to escape. They discovered it ten years ago, and it has been a place of refuge for them during some very difficult times, such as when Alfred’s father left and his mother died. James had encouraged Alfred to stay in school; James had wanted to be an engineer, but he also quit school four months after Alfred. Unlike Alfred, James never tried to get a job; instead he began hanging...
(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 finds himself at Donatelli’s Gym, a place where Joe Louis had once worked out. Alfred thinks about Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, black men who have “made it.” They do not have to work in anyone’s grocery store.
Alfred considers going into the gym; he would not think about it if James were there and turns to leave. Immediately he sees a muscular man swaggering toward him; he fears it is Major but it is not. Alfred turns around, with unsteady legs, and walks up the stairs,...
(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 cannot hit back. Donatelli explains the rigors of training, the foods and workouts Alfred will have to do, and says all the sacrifices he will make may not make him a good fighter. Since Alfred quit school, he will probably quit this, too; but Alfred says he wants to “be … somebody special. A champion.”
That is not enough. To be a champion, he must first want to be a contender, willing to sweat and bleed and go as far as his body will take him. “It’s the climbing that makes...
(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 service. Aunt Pearl and her daughters take their seats in the front row of the choir and Alfred takes a seat in the back of the room. Alfred tries to “slide into his soft, dreamy Sunday morning trance,” but today he is quite aware of everything around him. A man near him nudges Alfred and points to the door; Alfred turns around to see Major and Hollis hovering menacingly in the church doorway. Though Alfred is nervous, he tries not to show it; when he turns around again they are gone.
The service has never seemed longer, but he tries to concentrate on the sermon to take his mind off of Hollis and Major. The preacher is talking about “devil’s agents,” and Alfred wonders if he has met any. His thoughts turn to James, sitting in jail and perhaps blaming Alfred for his being there. The family rides the subway an hour to Aunt Pearl’s sister Dorothy’s house in Jamaica. After a big family dinner, Alfred joins his Uncle Wilson on the back porch.
Uncle Wilson talks with Alfred about taking advantage of every “opportunity for advancement” because the world is changing. His son Jeff thinks he might be a lawyer, and Uncle Wilson wonders if Alfred has thought about learning a trade. Alfred feels better when the subject turns to baseball and he almost tells his uncle about Mr. Donatelli, but it is time for dessert and then the long trip back to Harlem. Aunt Pearl and her daughters sleep on the subway, but Alfred remains alert, thinking about how he would defend them if another passenger tried to hurt them.
Later, Aunt Pearl tells Alfred he can always talk to her. In bed that night, Alfred thinks about how dirty the grocery store always is on Mondays, about Major, about the questions...
(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 in the newspaper. They are teasing him, but they let Alfred continue his training run.
Now his side hurts, he smells the gas fumes, and hears the noise of traffic. The magic of the morning is gone, so he plods back home where Aunt Pearl is getting his cousins ready for school. Immediately she assumes Alfred has been out all night, but he tells her he just took a walk. His aunt is distracted; but once the girls leave for school, she continues her questioning.
Alfred claims he could not sleep and went for a walk, but Aunt Pearl knows he took her alarm clock and assumes he is in some kind of trouble. When he denies it, she quits pressing him because he works a man’s job and should not be treated like a boy. Yesterday she overheard Uncle Wilson bragging about his son and wants Alfred to know she is proud of him for working when so many do not even try to get a job. All Alfred can manage to say is that he is going to be “somebody special,” but Aunt Pearl fears he may be planning to do something awful to achieve his goal.
At the grocery store, Lou Epstein (the oldest of the three Epstein brothers) asks Alfred what he knows about the attempted break-in Friday night. Nothing was stolen so James will be released on probation, but the others got away. The Epsteins want to trust Alfred, but it is difficult.
It is a tense morning in the store, and Alfred eats his lunch alone. That afternoon, several detectives talk to Lou Epstein. James looks at James through the store window, and there is a “cold, hard look” in his eyes before he turns away, swaggering like Major. As Alfred sweeps the floor, he considers disarming the alarm and bringing James back here Friday...
(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 will never come back if he leaves now. Everyone here seems to know what they are supposed to do and Alfred is intimidated by their proficiency; he backs up to leave and bumps into a “chubby little man.”
The man is Doctor Corey, the dentist from downstairs; he is here today since one of Donatelli’s fighters has a match tonight. Corey encourages Alfred to stay and suggests he start by doing sit-ups. Alfred finds an empty corner of a mat; though he is not particularly welcomed by a red-headed boy named Red, he begins to do sit-ups. He has always been good at them, and he does them quickly; he learns he has been doing them wrong and someone shows him the correct way. Though it is strenuous and painful, Alfred does twenty of them before doing thirty-four push-ups.
Henry appears and tells Alfred it is okay for Alfred to pay when he can. Donatelli will not kick him out. Bud Martin is Donatelli’s assistant, a thin, wiry man with hard black eyes. Henry is helping Martin load a black satchel with supplies for tonight’s fight, including his special creation which stops bleeding and keeps cuts clean: Clarence Martin’s Magical Potion. He invented it forty-one years ago, and no one knows the exact recipe but him.
Red belligerently makes demands and orders Henry to get him things. When Martin has had enough of the boy’s attitude, he calmly tells Red that he needs to learn to be kind, like Joe Louis and Cassius Clay. Red makes another demand. Martin says his job is to show Red how to fight; Red will have to become a man on his own. This infuriates Red and he threatens to knock Martin’s teeth out—if he had any. Martin allows Red to throw a punch and quickly humiliates him. Red empties...
(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 follow the action. He and James once found a sports magazine; they flipped past the boxing section and decided to be wrestlers.
Donatelli moves down the aisle, making a path for his fighter, “a tall, handsome Negro” named Streeter. Wearing a white robe with his name on the back, Streeter waves to the crowd as the announcer pulls down the microphone and introduces the match. The crowd boos Streeter’s opponent, Junious Becker from Houston, Texas, but cheers wildly for Streeter.
Streeter seems cool and confident, but the first few rounds of the match are slow. Alfred tries to picture himself sitting in the corner between rounds, being cared for by his trainers. Becker gets punched and falls to one knee but quickly recovers. Streeter bleeds from a deep cut near his left eye and Becker tries to keep hitting him there. At the end of the round, Donatelli signals the referee and stops the fight.
The boys finally make their way to the locker room, where Doctor Corey is taping Streeter’s eye. Streeter is furious that Donatelli stopped the fight, even if it was to protect him. Bud Martin is equally furious, telling Streeter he should be thankful someone cares more about him than he does for himself.
Alfred assumes this is just an unfortunate loss, but a young man named Bill Witherspoon (“Spoon”) explains to Alfred that Streeter boxed with fear after he got cut, and Donatelli stopped the fight so Streeter would not look like a coward in front of the crowd.
Spoon drives Henry and Alfred home. He was once a promising fighter, but when he began to “take too much punishment,” Donatelli told him to go to college full time, while he still had some money and his...
(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 ear, marking him for the rest of his life. Hollis is frozen; he cannot believe what is happening; Sonny just stares dully at the scene.
Alfred tries to keep his knees from knocking. Major continues to threaten Alfred, but Alfred continues to say no to the scheme. Hollis claims Alfred is crazy and Major gives him until Wednesday to decide. Alfred already has decided, and the answer is still no.
Major, Hollis, and Sonny do not understand Alfred’s loyalty to the Epsteins, claiming his employers do not care about him; to the Epsteins, Alfred is only a “slave.” He does all their dirty work and they are just using him.
Alfred calmly says it does not matter what the Epsteins think about him; he is not going to help them rob the grocery store. The bullies are beginning to get even angrier as they are faced with such decisiveness, and they hope Alfred is just showing bravado.
Major straightens up from his “knife-fighter’s crouch” and tells Alfred he now has until Thursday to decide whether or not he will help them with the burglary, but once again Alfred tells them he needs no extra time to decide. He will not help them. They can think he is scared if they choose, but Alfred says he has things to do; he unlocks the door to the clubroom and leaves.
Alfred shuts the door behind him as Major continues to scream, and his knees sag and shake. Then he straightens himself and walks home. As he walks home past the building stoops, he wants to raise his right arm to the crowd, as if he were in the ring.
(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 is drunk, but he tells her he was only out running three miles. She does not believe him, but Alfred makes a grand announcement to his family that they are looking at the soon-to-be champion of the world. The girls are disinterested and Aunt Pearl is confused until he explains that he is going to be a boxer. This announcement gets everyone’s attention.
Alfred explains he will be working with Donatelli. He was at Madison Square Garden with Henry and Jelly Bean last night and rode home with a schoolteacher named Spoon who used to be a boxer.
He explains a little more, and Aunt Pearl wonders if he is going to quit his job. Alfred does not plan to quit until he becomes a professional, but Aunt Pearl is worried about the gangsters in boxing and the fact that boxers get hurt. Alfred tells her Donatelli is concerned about the well-being of his boxers, but she wants to talk to Reverend Price about this idea.
Alfred assures his aunt that boxers can make very good money; one day maybe she will not have to work anymore. He will buy her a little house in Jamaica, near her sister Dorothy, and a car so she can drive to church on Sundays.
Aunt Pearl stops him from making too many hasty and lofty promises, but Alfred is serious. She knows he is serious and is thankful to see him more excited about this than anything else in his life; despite that, she is concerned and wishes he were excited about something other than boxing.
(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.
By the middle of the third week, the pain begins to fade. Sometimes Alfred gets plenty of help; other days, no one but Henry even notices him. This week he wakes up before the alarm goes off, and he feels fresh and strong when he runs.
His hour of running is the best part of Alfred’s day, although he wishes James were running with him; he would even slow down so James could keep up with him. Thinking about this makes Alfred sad, and he runs even faster to push such thoughts out of his mind. Henry is the closest thing he has to a partner, but Henry will never feel the exhilaration of running.
One afternoon there is no one in the store, and Alfred throws some punches as he watches his reflection on the stainless steel food locker door. Lou Epstein sees him and gives him a few boxing tips. Epstein was once known as Lightning Lou Epp. Bud Martin mentioned Epp was a good fighter but got too cut too easily. Epstein encourages Alfred to quit, as few boxers can make a living now because the business is too corrupt.
In July, Aunt Pearl and the girls leave for a while; Alfred enjoys the solitude. Doctor Corey gives him a generic mouthpiece and says that one day he might be good enough for a custom-fitted one. Alfred has to learn to breathe out of his nose. On his way home one night, he meets Major apologizes for their earlier misunderstanding.
Willy Streeter comes back to the gym, “sullen and overweight.” Donatelli takes him to a training camp before an out-of-town fight, and things often grow tense in the overheated gym. Alfred is frustrated. He has been training for six weeks and gained six pounds but has never thrown an actual punch.
Major comes to the gym one day and says...
(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 girl with a curly, blond wig and think, pink lipstick.” She smiles and asks Alfred to dance, and he is surprised at how close she is to him, swaying in the dark. Her perfume is strong and makes him a little dizzy in the hot, crowded room.
Twice Major offers Alfred liquor and twice Alfred rejects it; when Major appears with an orange soaked in vodka and says “this is good for you, man,” Alfred takes it. The party begins to blur and Alfred and Arlene continue dancing in a corner with the wine bottle Major left them.
Hollis dances by and says hello. Alfred again asks about James, and Hollis assure him that James is coming. Soon a marijuana cigarette makes its way to Alfred; he refuses, but Arlene puts it between his lips and he inhales.
The rest of the night is full of drinking and smoking. “At dawn, an invisible fist slams into his stomach,” and he rushes outside to the alley. For a moment Alfred thinks about the good feeling he has when he runs through the park, but then he goes back downstairs into the clubroom.
New supplies arrive and the party begins again. Alfred and James finally meet, and James looks haggard and dissipated. He asks why James never called because they were once partners, and he assures James that he just forgot about the burglar alarm. James says nothing matters anymore; Alfred was just a fool who forgot.
Hollis appears with a packet of white powder, and Alfred follows James into the corner and tries to convince James not to “mess with that stuff.”
Alfred pleads with his former friend, and James finally looks directly at Alfred and asks him what he has to say. Alfred tries to clear his head and think, but he passes...
(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 policemen are checking license plates and registrations, and Major recklessly drives away. Alfred immediately vaults over the door; his right ankle twists under him, but he keeps running as the police follow the car. Despite the pain in his ankle, Alfred runs through the crowd until he feels safe enough to stop.
Alfred buys some food and devours it; in a moment he vomits it all up and passersby are disgusted, assuming he is a “junkie, tryin’ to beat it with food.” Alfred moves as quickly as his ankle will let him and begins to walk. He ducks into a theater and eats some ice cream, which he manages to keep down, and begins to feel better. He wants to blame Major for everything, but Alfred knows he caused his own problems.
He gets back to Harlem that evening. Major calls and wonders if Alfred has plans. He says yes and hangs up the telephone. He soaks his sore ankle and knows he will not be able to run in the morning, even he wanted to—which he does not. There are no promises, and he has been working for nothing. Dawn arrives and his ankle does not hurt, but Alfred does not go running.
At the store Monday, the Epsteins can see that he spent the weekend partying; at home he eats a can of cold, greasy pork and beans. Tuesday is another long day and he walks home past the gym.
Donatelli was right when he said Alfred would probably quit boxing, too, and Alfred figures he might as well clean out his locker. Donatelli is sitting in a chair looking out the window; he does not move while Alfred clears his locker, wishing Donatelli would turn around. He does not. Alfred says goodbye, thanks him, and says he is sorry.
Alfred asks if he might have become a contender. A...
(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 does what he has been doing for weeks; he fails to watch Alfred’s feet. He does not see Alfred’s right hand until it is nearly too late, and then Alfred’s left hook smashes into his face.
Angel is surprised, and Alfred takes advantage of that; soon he has Angel “reeling against the ropes” with a bloody nose. Bud Martin calls time and Donatelli says Alfred is finally thinking and was “not bad.” From Donatelli, Alfred thinks “not bad” is as good as a gold medal.
As Henry unlaces Alfred’s gloves, he tells Alfred that was the best punch he has ever thrown, but Alfred is not sure what he did differently. Henry, with his crippled leg, shows him how he pivoted to keep better balance during the punch. Henry has been learning too, and Alfred is amazed. Seeing the incredulous look on Alfred’s face, Henry limps dejectedly away.
Alfred spars with Denny, and his quick footwork allows Alfred to avoid Denny’s punches. Lou Epstein comes to the gym to see how good Alfred is getting, and he is impressed with the boy.
While Alfred showers, Epstein and Martin reminisce about a match Epstein had with Kid Ryan. As Alfred is leaving, Epstein calls for him to wait; before he leaves, Epstein gives Martin some money to give to Ryan; he does not want to hurt Ryan’s pride and asks Martin not to tell Ryan where he got the money.
Epstein remarks that Alfred did not take his advice to quit boxing and has heard that it now takes Alfred half the time to sort the stock at the store every Monday. He asks Alfred to come to the store early tomorrow so he can begin to train him on the cash register.
Jose is slower than Angel and Denny, but he hits harder. Alfred...
(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 Donatelli a second mouthpiece in case Alfred swallows his; he is trying to lighten the mood.
Alfred eats two soft-boiled eggs and some tea; the waiter asks about Willie Streeter, and Donatelli says he can no longer represent him. Alfred and Henry take a taxi to Spoon’s apartment in Manhattan. Donatelli will join them later. It will be quiet there, and Alfred is supposed to rest. Jelly won his first fight, but Donatelli told him a fighter who cannot control his eating cannot be a contender.
This is Alfred’s first taxi ride; Henry took cabs to the clinic all the time when he had polio. Spoon’s apartment is full of books, representing a life much different from the one Alfred lives. Henry tells Alfred the police raided the clubroom and found marijuana and heroin.
Spoon’s wife Betty fixes Alfred’s steak, and Spoon explains that Alfred can finish high school at night. After he eats and takes a short walk, Alfred takes a nap; when Henry wakes him up it is time to go.
Donatelli is tense and nervous. A doctor examines and weighs Alfred; he will wear black trunks. Henry will work his corner tonight, so Corey will sit in the crowd. Bud Martin and Donatelli each wrap a hand once Alfred is dressed and ready, and Henry proudly shows Alfred his white terry-cloth robe with his name on the back. Alfred is moved to tears.
Alfred’s is the third fight. His opponent is Joe Rivera from the Bronx. Rivera lands the first punch, a solid hit to Alfred’s mouth because he was not ready for it. Soon Alfred gets hit hard and falls to the mat, dazed, but then is saved by the bell. Donatelli tells Alfred to “stick and run,” even though the crowd calls him a coward. Alfred boxes...
(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 forbids him to do one thing, he will go and do something else. She still does not like the sport of boxing, but Alfred says it is the only thing he knows how to do. She reminds him he did not know anything about boxing just a few months ago.
When Aunt Pearl was seventeen, a man from the Apollo Theater came to her house. He had heard her singing in the church choir and wanted to put her in the chorus of a stage show at his theater. She was going to wear a fancy dress and learn some dance steps.
Aunt Pearl and her sisters were thrilled at the opportunity, but her mother would not sign the papers because she believed stage shows were sinful and refused to let her daughter participate. The more her daughters begged, the more resolved their mother became.
Alfred has never heard this story before and assumes it was a secret. Aunt Pearl says it was not a secret but that he has been “closed into himself” and did not choose to listen.
Alfred asks what happened next, and she finishes the story. The man went away and she met her future husband, John. Aunt Pearl’s mother did not think he had enough money in the bank, so he worked diligently; after a long time of courting, her mother finally gave her approval for them to marry. They had a son, Charles, and then John died a month before the twins were born.
Alfred consoles his aunt, who is sobbing at the memory. She appreciates his comfort and asks if he won his fight. He agrees that the victory did not “taste sweet,” but he will not quit boxing.
(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 to go for the knockout. Griffin finally misses a punch, and Alfred musters his strength for the next time Griffin misses; when it happens, he throws his entire weight into a short right uppercut that stops Griffin where he stands.
Alfred swings a hook with all his strength at Griffin’s jaw; pain shoots up his arm and Griffin falls limply to the mat. He twitches once and is still.
Others cheer, but Alfred feels sick and wants to apologize to his opponent; one of Griffin’s handlers tells him not to feel bad for landing a lucky punch. Griffin has to be helped down the ring steps. Martin and Donatelli are concerned about Alfred’s eyes (they are swollen, not damaged), and Henry is in awe of Alfred’s “beautiful hook.” Alfred can think only about the “dull, meaty thunk” of his glove on Griffin’s jaw, and he cannot sleep.
He leaves the apartment early so he will not have to discuss the fight with Aunt Pearl, and he avoids everyone until he has to go to work. Lou Epstein congratulates Alfred on his second win and offers him the day off, but Alfred wants to stay.
Alfred struggles to concentrate and Epstein sends him home early. Alfred feels better outside. He is stopped by Harold and Lynn, standing in front of a school with their leaflets. Their attitude toward him has changed; they think people will admire a boxer and ask Alfred to get involved with their new recreation program. Alfred says he does not have time anymore but promises to consider the idea.
A bell rings and the children are dismissed. Alfred walks on, thinking about “skipping, laughing children,” and then he thinks about James, standing in a dark corner with his packet of...
(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 potential, to settle for less than what Wilson expects of him. Jeff is realistic and knows the corporate world hires very few African-Americans, but Wilson is adamant that he knows what is best for the boy.
Jeff questions his cousin about boxing, and Alfred tells him that he likes running and working out in the gym but is “not so sure” about what happens in the ring. Wilson keeps talking about “planning for the future” and “thinking ahead.”
Alfred announces that he intends to finish high school at night because Spoon says that “the more you know, [the] more you want to know.” Wilson thinks times have really changed and he does not always understand it; his wife reminds him that men like him started the change, and now it is time for the next generation to move forward.
Jeff drives Aunt Pearl’s family home so he can continue talking to Alfred. Jeff tells Alfred he has seen a change in him; he used to be more negative and seemed to “drift along through life.” Alfred admits he did not have a clear plan for his life and thus saw no reason to stay in school. But Spoon told him that a person who can concentrate on boxing can concentrate on learning anything.
Jeff is thinking about joining one of the many organizations trying to form groups to give black children black adults to look up to; he thinks Alfred would be good at helping to organize a recreation center for children.
After Jeff drops them off, Alfred and Aunt Pearl walk the girls up the stairs to the house, past a “shuddering old man crouched alongside the stairs behind a garbage pail.” When the hunched-over man moves, Alfred feels sick and scurries his family inside before slowly...
(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.
Barnes again clinches Alfred and pounds his kidneys; over Barnes’s shoulder, Alfred can see that the round will end in thirty seconds. After the referee pulls them apart, Alfred is able to keep Barnes at a distance until the final bell rings.
The judges call the bout a draw, and the crowd boos Alfred all the way back to the dressing room. In the locker room, Donatelli, Martin, Corey, Spoon, and Henry are silent while Alfred tries to avoid their eyes. Silence reigns as Spoon drives everyone back to the gym. He drops Donatelli off first, and the trainer asks Alfred to come upstairs with him.
Donatelli turns on a “single naked bulb” and his face is “smooth and hard,” the way he looked the first night Alfred came to the gym. After putting his arm around Alfred’s shoulders, Donatelli says it is time for Alfred to retire. He does not have the “killer instinct,” something he must possess to be able to win. He must be able to take advantage of a man’s weakness to “beat him into the ground,” something most boxers have. Those who do not have it are “so good they don’t need it.” Alfred is not that good. Alfred admits he does not particularly like fighting.
The first night Alfred came to the gym, he was alone and scared, but he worked hard and conquered his fear. Although he quit once, he came back and worked even harder. Alfred remembers what Donatelli told him about being a contender and thinks he was probably not talking just about boxing. Alfred does not want to quit before he has really tried. Now that Alfred has won three bouts, Donatelli says his next opponents will be good enough to kill him.
Alfred worries that he will not be finishing...
(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 drug rehabilitation clinic, but James will need Alfred’s encouragement to stay clean. Unfortunately, James has left the neighborhood and Alfred does not know where he is.
Alfred and his team silently drive to the arena. Alfred tries to remember everything so he can think about it later. When Donatelli learns that Alfred’s opponent is Elston Hubbard, he cancels the fight. Hubbard is much older and weighs more than Alfred; Alfred will get hurt.
Alfred insists on fighting, reminding Donatelli that he believes the only way to know whether a boxer is a contender is if he gets hurt in the ring. This is his last chance in boxing to see if he can be a contender, and Alfred refuses to capitulate to Donatelli’s threat to quit as his manager.
Hubbard is a man with a Marine Corps tattoo, and the crowd is clearly on his side. Donatelli whispers to “be careful” as the fight begins, and immediately Alfred is knocked to the canvas. After the referee releases him, Alfred takes a series of hard hits from his opponent. He manages to get one arm free and land a few blows on Hubbard before breaking free and jumping to the center of the ring. Hubbard hits him again and Alfred goes down again. He gets up and takes more hits until the bell rings.
Round two is just as bad for Alfred, and the referee asks Donatelli if he wants to stop the fight. Henry insists that Alfred be allowed to continue. The crowd is roaring and Alfred’s mind and vision are hazy; his mouthpiece pops out, but he continues to stand. He tells himself that Hubbard is going to have to kill him because he will not be knocked out; he will stand as long as it takes to finish the fight.
The final bell rings,...
(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 is not deterred, reminding James that this cave belongs to both of them.
As he crawls inside, James lights a match, and Alfred can see that one of James’s arms and hands are bleeding badly, and he knows James needs to go to a hospital. James says he does not care if he gets an infection or loses his arm, but he finally quiets and admits it hurts. He allows James to wrap his arm and slow the blood. He notices the bandages on Alfred’s face and asks if James won his fight. Alfred says, “sort of.”
Because Alfred offered to help, James wants money and promises he “ain’t hooked” and can “stop any time.” Like a true friend, Alfred promises to help James “beat the junk.” He is confident that they can do it together. The night Alfred’s mother died, James promised to “stick with” him, and now Alfred intends to do the same for James.
Donatelli, Henry, Martin, and Spoon are willing to help James once he gets clean. Alfred is going to go to night school and work in a recreation center for children, and he will get James a job as well. Although “nothing is promised,” James will never know if he can be successful until he tries. He might even get to build things one day.
James is afraid to go to the hospital because he is already on probation, and this time he will be “sent away.” Alfred is sure Epstein will help if Alfred asks him, but even if James has to go away, it will not be forever. Alfred will be waiting to help because James is his partner.
James refuses to go, so Alfred noisily begins to leave the cave and tells James goodbye. James changes his mind, and Alfred immediately reaches back into the cave for his friend. He pulls James...
(The entire section is 492 words.)