Robert Lipsyte Nat Hentoff - Essay

Nat Hentoff

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Far too many writers of fiction for the young seem to believe their primary function is to teach rather than to create textures of experience which are their own reasons for being. [In "The Contender," Robert Lipsyte] alternates between these two roles….

On [a] homiletic level, the material is so neatly and obviously manipulated that virtue will have to be its own reward because "The Contender"—as a whole—fails as believable fiction. In several of its parts, however, didacticism recedes, and lo, there is life! In particular, whenever Lipsyte writes about boxing itself he indicates how intensely evocative he can be and he moves the reader beyond maxims into participation.

Lipsyte is most convincing in his unfolding of the inner transformation of a boy gone slack into a boxer gradually responding to different and compelling rhythms as he is driven by self-stretching imperatives, as emotional as they are physical. Within his factitious outer framework Lipsyte occasionally lets his main character become palpable.

It is when he leaves the gym and the ring that Lipsyte is too often content to map the road to salvation, rather than explore much more deeply the present ghetto terrain of his dropout. Can the lessons in more-than-survival that are learned in the ring be as easily applied as "The Contender" promises in neighborhoods where the rules of the game and the odds are set by distant outside societal forces? If the Horatio Alger approach is to be at all relevant in a work of fiction set in the ghetto, it needs to be considerably updated and treated with much less naiveté than here.

Nat Hentoff, "New Books for Young Readers: 'The Contender'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 12, 1967, p. 42.