Essential to a full appreciation of The Contender is an understanding of Lipsyte's use of setting. The world in which Alfred lives is Harlem, a predominantly black community on the northern end of Manhattan in New York City. Within the context of the novel, Lipsyte introduces various aspects of Harlem as well as other locations around the city. Lipsyte uses these settings as major symbols. Each setting represents a different side of life and affects Alfred in its own way.
When Alfred first appears in the novel, he is on the front steps of the building that houses his Aunt Pearl's apartment. Before him are the mean streets of Harlem. The atmosphere is repressive. The sun, often a literary symbol of hope or promise, melts into the despair of a "dirty gray Harlem sky." The air is "sour," rancid, and foul. Young men without direction gather on street corners, drifting, waiting for something to happen. Cars crunch through garbage and broken glass. Packs of children, "ragged and skinny," have empty beer cans for toys. The sights and sounds echo the sense of the backdrop that Lipsyte paints. This is the world that dominates Alfred's life. His struggle will be to overcome the repression. Initially, Alfred thinks he can do this only by escaping Harlem.
Aunt Pearl's apartment offers some security, but it can't compare to Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Wilson's suburban home in Queens. Dorothy's home represents the flight of the black middle class away from Harlem and into the suburbs after World War II. The streets are clean and grassy, lined with attractive houses. The food is abundant and good. Wilson discourages concern for those left behind in the inner-city. When Alfred returns to Harlem, the streets seem dirtier, the apartment smaller. The plaster cracks over the kitchen sink. A roach scurries across the cabinet. Addicts scuffle in the hall. Alfred sleeps in a fold-up bed. At this point, Alfred yearns for escape.
Knowing no better way, Alfred and his best friend, James, have spent much of their childhood trying to escape their lives through fantasy. The movie theater symbolizes an important means of escape for the boys. While watching a movie, they can enter a world of action and adventure. Interestingly, they often side with the hero's adversaries. Identifying with the underdogs, they cheer for the Indians to defeat the cowboys and for the monsters to prevail. On the streets, Alfred also sees men whom he admires, adults with suave manners and sophisticated ways, like the characters he sees in the movies. When a pretty girl his age sits beside him on the subway in Chapter 4, he longs for some kind of crisis so the he can come to her rescue, introducing himself as the leading man might in a movie: "I'm Alfred Brooks, may I be of service?"
Television serves as another means of escape for Alfred. On television, Alfred sees more of the fantasy world beyond Harlem: a speeding stagecoach, shooting Indians, "Uncle Harry" on a children's show greeting the "Kiddie Klubbers." The people on television are almost always white, and they live in a world foreign to Alfred. In Chapter 2, he watches a white family whose mother is pretty and slim and whose husband is tall and handsome. Their kitchen is shiny and as big as Aunt Pearl's entire apartment. The dog, Gus, can romp across a huge lawn under trees. Little Billy, their son, secretly builds a robot in the garage. At seventeen, Alfred is skeptical about the accuracy of the depiction, but he wonders if some people really do live that way.
Much of Alfred and James' dreaming is shared at a secret cave that James discovered in the park as a young boy while rock hunting. He had a book about rocks and wanted to save the best ones to show at school. When James took the rocks home, however, his drunken father dumped them all down the air shaft in their apartment. At that moment, it is as though James' dreams were dumped down the air shaft as well. One of James' dreams was to be an engineer and build great things. But James allows himself to believe Major and Hollis when they tell him that "the white man" would never allow him to build anything but garbage heaps.
The cave is a safe place for James and Alfred, a symbolic haven from the mean streets and bullies like Major who steal whatever small change the boys have. Near the end of the novel, when James is seriously injured and running from the police, Alfred knows that he can find his old friend hiding in the cave. As boys, they spun their dreams in solitude there. Some of their fantasies may have been unrealistic, but at least Alfred and James had hope. James doesn't have much hope left as the novel opens; his hopes and dreams have been dashed by people like his father and Major and the gang.
In sharp contrast to the secret cave is the clubroom where the street gang hangs out. The clubroom is Major's domain and symbolizes the negative energy of Harlem. The mean streets make themselves at home in the basement hovel; the gang members strut right in, flop on the sagging couch, and light up a joint. Major literally flexes his muscles in front of the cracked mirror, watching a distorted reflection that delights him. He enjoys flexing muscles, bullying people, pushing and manipulating them. Major is not stupid; he is a talented mimic, and he usually knows which buttons to push to get others to do his bidding. In order to get Alfred to attend the Friday night party, for example, Major tempts him with a promise that James will be there. When Alfred arrives, Major already has a girl and other temptations (such as alcohol and drugs) waiting for Alfred. Alfred sees the party as another means of escape. The problem is that this escape is destructive if not deadly. Alcohol and drugs are not harmless daydreams. They leave Alfred physically crashed and morally spent as he heads for Coney Island in the stolen white Cadillac convertible with the gang the next day.
Coney Island symbolizes Alfred's lowest moment. It is more like a descent into hell than an amusement park. Alfred is lost, injured, hot, and hung over. He vomits on himself and is shunned by strangers. But even at this lowest point, some hopeful things happen. Alfred refuses to blame his plight on Major or anyone else. Alfred alone accepts responsibility for attending the party and going to Coney Island with the gang. When he returns to Harlem, Alfred notices the hungry eyes on the lost faces of young men standing on street corners, waiting for something to happen. Although he decides to quit boxing, a spark of hope remains, as evidenced by Alfred's meeting with Mr. Donatelli when Alfred returns to the gym, ostensibly to clean out his locker, two nights later. Donatelli ignores him until Alfred initiates the conversation. Alfred then realizes that he really wants to try to be a contender.
Donatelli's Gym is the antithesis of the mean streets. At the gym, Alfred finds a world with a practical code of ethics. Everyone has an equal chance. Alfred will receive only the benefits that he earns. Nothing is promised to him except a fair chance. To get to the gym, Alfred has to climb. The gym is on the third floor of a building, and those three flights of stairs represent a psychological as well as a physical ascent for Alfred. The staircase is not a pretty place. It smells of stale wine, antiseptic, sweat, urine, and liniment. Alfred's legs shake; a ball of ice is in his gut. Thousands of steps seem to loom before him. They are so steep that he falls to all fours sometimes, just to keep going. His teeth grind, and his throat is dry; but Alfred makes it to the top. At the gym, he learns the most important lessons of his life and prepares for the test of the fight ring.
The union hall on Long Island where Alfred has his first amateur match is about as far away from Madison Square Garden as he can get. The Garden is the ultimate in the sport of boxing. It is where the best fighters go to perform before thousands of knowledgeable fans and sometimes, through television, the eyes of the world. The union hall is just a shabby building with a sleepy old man at the door and a locker room filled with cigar smoke. Places like this are where boxers start. They represent a chance, but little more. However, the boxing ring itself is the same in all of the arenas, whether at the union hall or Madison Square Garden. The ring is where Alfred must be tested, on character even more than on ability. The lessons at the gym were Alfred's homework. His final exam is the match with Hubbard, which takes place at Parkway Gardens in Brooklyn.
The final fight is where Alfred has the opportunity to prove to himself that he truly is a contender. Although he is outmatched, Alfred gives everything he has and goes the distance against a bigger, stronger, and better fighter. Although he loses a unanimous decision, Alfred is everything that Mr. Donatelli said a contender must be. He is a man who realizes that he probably will never be a boxing champion but is willing to give all he has to go as far as his abilities and character will take him. He does not quit. He knows that quitting would be worse than never starting in the first place.
When Alfred returns to the cave to help James in the final chapter, he carries with him the lessons that he has learned at the gym and in the ring. Most importantly, he knows that these are lessons for life, not just for boxing. Ultimately, he will deal with Harlem as he dealt with Hubbard in his final match: by facing it, going toe-to-toe, refusing to run, and going the distance.