The Contender By Robert Lipsyte Summary and Analysis Chapter 12

Summary

Alfred parties all Friday night and well into Saturday. It is now Saturday night. He has somehow made his way back to Aunt Pearl's apartment, where he has passed out on the linoleum kitchen floor in a pool of his own sweat. The aggravating sound of the ringing telephone finally brings him to consciousness. It is Aunt Pearl calling to say that she won't return until Thursday. She wants Alfred to call Dorothy the next morning, before church, to tell her that Pearl will pick up the girls Thursday night. Alfred barely hears her. He stumbles to the living room, where he passes out in front of the television. Later, Alfred passes out in the bathroom and finally ends up on the couch. On Sunday morning, he is sick and can't remember the specifics of Aunt Pearl's message.

Around 8:00 that morning, Major telephones to remind Alfred that they are going to Coney Island in a few minutes. Major arrives in a stolen white Cadillac convertible. Hollis, Sonny, and a younger boy named Justin are with him. Alfred reluctantly joins them, and Major drives, often recklessly, to Coney Island. While double-parked in a crowd in front of a lunch stand, Hollis notices policemen checking for drivers' licenses and registrations. The boys abandon the car and split up, Alfred spraining his ankle in the process.

Having escaped to relative safety, Alfred realizes that he has not eaten since noon Friday, almost two full days ago. He buys spare ribs, buttered corn, and French fries, washing them down quickly with a Pepsi. He remembers but ignores Donatelli's warning against such greasy foods. Soon, Alfred is vomiting over the boardwalk railing and onto himself. Later he rests in an air-conditioned movie theater and manages to keep down two cups of ice cream.

By early evening, Alfred has returned by subway to Harlem. He soaks the ankle but won't try to run the next morning. He isn't going to be a boxer anyway. He goes to work Monday and Tuesday but skips his workouts at the gym.

Tuesday night, while just wandering around Harlem, he finds himself in front of the gym and decides to go in and clean out his locker. Oddly, he feels tears in his eyes as he stuffs his gear into a paper shopping bag. Mr. Donatelli is in the gym but ignores him. Alfred finally calls to his mentor, says goodbye, and offers an apology. Donatelli says there is no need to apologize. Alfred asks if he would have been any good if he had continued. Donatellis answers that there is no way to know. Alfred asks if he could have been a contender. Donatelli tells him that only Alfred could answer that question, in time. Donatelli says that, as a manager, he would know about Alfred only after he was seriously hurt in the ring for the first time; but Alfred will know then, too. Lipsyte subtly shifts the verb tense in the conversation. Initially, the tense is conditional, with words like would, indicating that Alfred isn't planning to follow through with boxing. But by the end of the conversation, Alfred and Donatelli speak in future tense — "Will you tell me then?" — indicating that Alfred will continue training.

Analysis

Chapter 12 is one of the most important in the novel. In it, Alfred reaches his lowest point but experiences a kind of epiphany, a moment of clarity or self-awareness. Alfred eventually transcends the crisis that begins with the party and ends, appropriately, in a conversation with Mr. Donatelli after Alfred has, once more, climbed those symbolic stairs to the gym.

Lipsyte is a master of imagery, and the imagery is especially powerful as he describes Alfred's further descent and eventual resurrection. In the first sentence of the chapter, Lipsyte does not say that the telephone is ringing; instead, he writes, "the rattlesnake was buzzing." Some annoying, probably dangerous force brings Alfred to consciousness. Instead of simply stating that Alfred feels sick, Lipsyte applies metaphors from the gym where Alfred has spent so many hours training in recent weeks: Jelly Belly seems to sit on his head; Jose and Angel, chattering too loudly and in Spanish, seem to jump on his stomach; Mr. Donatelli shouts at him repeatedly. Finally, Alfred realizes that the noise is just the telephone ringing.

Alfred's trip to Coney Island with Major and his friends is more like a descent into hell than a trip to an amusement center. It is hot and noisy. The streets off the boardwalk are "choked" with young people. The smells of cotton candy, fried chicken, barbecue, and hot dogs, which we might think of as tantalizing, cause Alfred's stomach to cramp. Babies cry. Fear of the police results in an escape that is chaotic and causes Alfred injury. First, Major nearly runs over a baby carriage in the crowded street. When everyone abandons the car, Alfred badly sprains his ankle, adding to the torture of his flight. When he finally gets something to eat, he vomits it onto himself as well as over the boardwalk railing. Someone calls him "disgusting," and another person thinks he must be a junkie who can't hold down food. Later, he notices dried vomit on his shoes. People back away from Alfred, repelled by the way he smells.

Through all of this, Alfred is tempted to blame Major. Alfred has always preferred to blame someone else for his own mistakes rather instead of accepting responsibility for himself. Here, though, Lipsyte presents a noteworthy change. Alfred finally is ready to grow up and accept responsibility: "Don't blame him, man, he didn't pour all that stuff into you at the party. You did that," he says to himself. Major did not force him to go along that day. It was Alfred's choice. Alfred realizes that he has no one to blame but himself.

In Harlem, Alfred notices the absence of purpose in the residents, especially the young men. They are just hanging around, "waiting for something to happen." This registers with Alfred, but we are not yet sure if he understands how close he is to joining those people. Although he goes to work on Monday and Tuesday, Alfred, too, is lost. He walks "aimlessly" for hours around Harlem. Reminiscent of his first visit to Donatelli's Gym, Alfred is not consciously aware that he is going there until he arrives. Tears in his eyes, he cleans out his locker as noisily as he can and slams the door shut, apparently hoping to draw Mr. Donatelli's attention. The old man holds no grudge; he wishes Alfred well. Alfred is the one who prolongs the conversation, not wanting to let go. He wonders if he could have been any good, if he could have been a contender. Finally, Alfred is asking the right question. It is a question that only Alfred can answer.

Glossary

Coney Island beach and amusement park in Brooklyn, New York, on a peninsula, formerly an island, at the southwestern end of Long Island. Here, it is the setting for Alfred's final descent.

Cadillac an expensive, top-of-the line automobile made by General Motors. Here, it is symbolic of the most luxurious or highest quality vehicle, a status symbol for Major among his peers in Harlem.

Hudson River a river rising in the Adirondack Mountains in eastern New York State and running generally south to its mouth at New York City, forming part of the New York-New Jersey boundary toward the end of its run.

boardwalk a walk, often made of wood and elevated, placed along a beach or seafront.

Ferris wheel (after George W. G. Ferris [1859-96], U.S. engineer who constructed the first one for the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893) a large, upright wheel revolving on a fixed axle and having seats hanging between two parallel rims, used as an amusement-park ride.

foxes [Slang] persons, especially women, who are attractive, especially sexually attractive.

Brooklyn a borough of New York city, on western Long Island.

smart meat [Slang] a negative nickname used by Alfred to refer to Mr. Donatelli.

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