The Contender By Robert Lipsyte Summary and Analysis Chapters 14-15

Summary

As usual, Alfred's eyes snap open at 5:30 sharp on the morning of his first fight. However, he will not take his usual run this day. Aunt Pearl wonders if he is sick. Alfred is evasive, because he doesn't want her to worry about the fight and is concerned that she might try to stop him from doing it. He says he has a secret. Aunt Pearl respects that.

Henry comes by at 10:00, and he and Alfred meet Mr. Donatelli for lunch at noon. Alfred and Henry take a taxi to Spoon's apartment where Alfred can rest through the afternoon. They are impressed by Spoon's expansive collection of books. Spoon gets home a little after 3:30; his wife, Betty, arrives shortly thereafter and prepares Alfred's pre-fight meal. Spoon speaks briefly of education and tells Alfred that he could finish high school at night if he wanted to.

Alfred lies down and dozes until Henry awakens him. Donatelli has come to ride with them, in Spoon's car, to the Long Island City Union Hall, a large, shabby building that hosts that night's amateur fight card.

Alfred is matched with another lightweight (about 135 pounds) named Rivera. Following amateur rules, they are scheduled for three 2-minute rounds. Rivera is short, wide, muscular, and relatively immobile. Donatelli advises Alfred to "stick and run," which recalls the tactic Alfred used so effectively against Denny, a similar fighter, in the sparring described in Chapter 13. Unfortunately, Alfred is numb with nervousness as he comes out of his corner and walks into Rivera's opening punch to Alfred's mouth. Nevertheless, Alfred quickly recovers and fights well, hitting and moving, until he listens to the jeering of the crowd, taunting him for his evasive fighting tactics. Alfred stands and fights, playing to Rivera's strength, and ends up on the canvas with the referee counting over him. The bell rings to end the first round as the referee reaches "three."

Through the second and most of the third rounds, Alfred fights intelligently, following Donatelli's advice to "stick and run," despite the boos and insults from the crowd. At the end of the fight, however, Alfred thinks he can move in and fight the weary Rivera at close range. Although he has some success with this approach, Rivera hits him in the groin with a painful blow at the final bell. Alfred wins the fight, but Donatelli is displeased that Alfred allowed himself to be hit at the end.

Back at the apartment after the fight, Aunt Pearl shows concern over Alfred's injuries but reveals that she, too, had a dream when she was seventeen — to join the chorus at the Apollo Theater — but her mother would not allow it. She doesn't necessarily regret the way her life turned out (she has no idea if anything might have come of the singing opportunity), but she regrets not having the chance to try.

Analysis

Alfred's first fight is nothing glamorous. He doesn't even know who his opponent will be until a few minutes before the contest. As Bud says, "[It] ain't Madison Square Garden." In the Donatelli code, however, every fight is important. An ex-Marine named Elston Hubbard opens the card impressively, knocking out his opponent in one minute, twenty seconds and foreshadowing a key event later in the novel. He is mature, strong, and confident. Even Bud is impressed.

The ritual for Alfred is the same as it is for Donatelli's professional fighters. He even receives an impressive white robe with his name on the back in red letters. The lessons Alfred is learning are as important as any match: If he listens to Donatelli, he does well; if he does not, he is on the canvas.

Henry's role expands in this chapter. He is responsible for Alfred's welfare throughout the hours leading up to the fight and is an assistant trainer in Alfred's corner. He also serves an important function within the novel, because it is Henry who tells Alfred that police raided the clubroom and found marijuana and heroin. James was there during the raid, but he escaped arrest, as did everyone except Sonny and Justin.

Lipsyte's verbal imagery is impressive again, specifically his use of verbals. An ice ball in the gut symbolizes Alfred's pre-fight fear. Just as the bout is to begin, the ice ball explodes, "spraying his entire body with freezing, paralyzing streams of water, weighing down his arms, deadening his legs, squeezing his heart." No wonder Rivera's first punch nails Alfred. Still, all the training pays off. Alfred bounces off the ropes jabbing. His legs are "steel springs"; his arms are "whips." Alfred has been superbly prepared, if he follows Donatelli's instructions.

Bill Witherspoon and his wife, Betty, serve as examples of life beyond the ring. Even on this day of Alfred's crucial first fight, they talk with him about education. The living room of their modest apartment houses more books that Alfred has ever seen in a home. Henry points out that the couple uses the books to settle arguments, like whether a black man was the first to reach the North Pole. Alfred laughingly compares this to an argument at James' house when his friend's parents threw whiskey bottles at each other in a dispute over cigarettes; a bottle hit James in the head, and it took nine stitches to close the wound.

Bill and Betty transcend racial stereotypes in other ways as well. They live in a racially mixed neighborhood. Alfred notices this and asks Spoon if he has white friends. Spoon says he has a few, joking that he decided to allow whites to move into his neighborhood when he saw that white boys' blood is the same color as his.

Lipsyte avoids being preachy or didactic, but this is a novel about a young man's education and maturation. There are some lessons along the way.

Glossary

Washington Heights a residential district in northern Manhattan, New York City; here, the area of New York in which Bill and Betty Witherspoon live.

polio short for "poliomyelitis," an accute infectious disease, especially of children, caused by a viral inflammation of the gray matter of the spinal cord; it is accompanied by paralysis of various muscle groups that sometimes atrophy, often with resulting permanent deformities; here, the disease that crippled Henry Johnson.

terry-cloth a pile fabric, usually woven of cotton, used to make towels and robes; here, the fabric in the robe Alfred receives before his fight.

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