As the novel opens, James Mosely is Alfred's lifetime best friend. However, James has already started on a path opposite Alfred's. In the novel's first chapter, James joins Major and the gang in an attempted burglary of Epsteins' grocery. Although Alfred inadvertently tells the gang that cash may be in the register overnight, he flatly refuses to go along. James does, however, and is arrested during the break-in.
Most significant is James' embodiment of another theme of the novel: hope versus despair. While Alfred hopes for a better life, James has already given up. He despairs. When we see him at the Friday night clubroom party near the end of Chapter 11, he is in the throes of drug abuse. His teeth are yellow with neglect. His face is thin and his eyes sunken. He speaks as though he is stoned. When James returns to Alfred on Thanksgiving night, his only interest is finding enough money for his next fix. At the end of the novel, when Alfred has "climbed" to become a true contender in life, not just in the boxing ring, James is at his lowest. He has broken through the front window of Epsteins' store in a dangerously clumsy attempt at another burglary. His arm is seriously cut.
As soon as Alfred hears that James is on the run, he knows where his friend is hiding. Alfred finds James in their secret cave at the park where they shared so many boyhood dreams. Even then, near the point of death or imprisonment, James prefers to wallow in racial despair, blaming "Whitey" for his problems. To Alfred, this is a poor excuse, because Alfred has learned to combine his hope with some tough love and realistic effort. We have the feeling that Alfred will triumph in life. Whether he will be able to pull James up with him is up to James.