Critical Essays Style Enhances Substance in The Contender


Lipsyte's writing style enhances the substance of his story in The Contender. He reveals Alfred's life primarily through his own eyes. Lipsyte's occasional similes and metaphors are particularly apt; his dialogue and imagery are powerfully effective.

For the most part, Lipsyte uses a third-person narrative, limited to insight into Alfred's mind. We see the story through Alfred's eyes. The narrative is linear, which means that it proceeds within a certain timeframe from beginning to middle to end. We usually know what month it is and often which day of the week. The setting or context is New York City, usually Harlem, from June to December of a year in the mid-1960s. Although Lipsyte presents no actual flashbacks, Alfred often recalls events from the past in such detail that the reader might feel that he has witnessed them. An example of the power of this kind of memory is the discovery of the cave with James, which took place ten years before the action of the novel.

The author makes selective use of similes, comparisons using the words "like" or "as." When Aunt Pearl takes her little girls to church on Sunday at the beginning of Chapter 4, they sail past the rough-talking nationalist speakers "like starched white tugboats escorting a blue cotton ocean liner." We get a sense of the size of Aunt Pearl, compared to the size of the girls, as well as a sense of Aunt Pearl's devotion to direction. She is not the least distracted from her Sunday morning voyage. Although that simile is as wholesome as Aunt Pearl, many of Lipsyte's similes are as rough as the boxing ring. When Alfred awakes on the day of his first match, he notices that the plaster over the kitchen sink has broken loose, leaving "a powdery-white hole as big as a fist." This simile helps to set the scene for Alfred's day, in which this child of poverty will try to break through to a better life, using his own fists. One of the most effective of Lipsyte's similes describes Hubbard's second knockdown of Alfred in the final fight. Alfred hears a "thud against his ear and then the distant plop, like a stone splashing into the pool at the bottom of a sewer." The simile echoes the violence of the ring as well as the harsh reality of the mean streets that Alfred knows so well.

Sometimes Lipsyte chooses metaphor, a figure of speech in which the author speaks of something as if it actually were something else. At the opening of Chapter 12, for example, Alfred is passed out on his kitchen floor, somehow having returned home from the wild party at the clubroom. Lipsyte writes that Alfred hears a rattlesnake buzzing. But in fact, the noise Alfred hears is the ringing telephone. Alfred's subconscious transfer of telephone to rattlesnake reveals his aversion to the constant harping of the trainers. He feels pressured by time. He thinks Henry is screaming at him and Jelly Belly is sitting on his head. The rattlesnake is a deadly threat, and Alfred thinks that life is attacking him. At other times, Lipsyte writes of punches that are tons of concrete or iron pipes, rather than saying that the punches felt like them. Under attack, Alfred sees the punches that way. The dominating metaphor of the novel, however, extends beyond any one scene. The fight game, Mr. Donatelli would tell us, is life. It is not "like" life or "as real as" life. It is life. And that is the basis of all of Donatelli's aphorisms (brief statements of principle). Alfred finally understands. As he says to Mr. Donatelli near the end of Chapter 18, "Remember what you said that night . . . about being a . . . a contender? . . . You weren't just talking about boxing."

The language may be cleaned up a little, but the dialogue in the novel is usually realistic. In the very first chapter, we get a clear look at Major's personality through the way he speaks. He is a manipulative bully who loves to mock. When Alfred says that he has given his pay to his aunt, Major mimics him derisively: "Gave it to my aunt . . . You such a good sweet boy. Old Uncle Alfred." Later, Major, who apparently never works, compares Alfred's job at the grocery to slavery. Major mocks the stereotypically "shufflin'" personality that he accuses Alfred of displaying to his Jewish bosses: "You be scratching your head and saying, 'Yassuh, Mistuh Lou, lemme brush them hairs offen your coat . . . I be pleased iffen you 'low me to wash your car.'" In contrast, Mr. Donatelli speaks in a straightforward, candid manner, as in his first meeting with Alfred: "It's hard work, you'll want to quit at least once every day. If you quit before you really try, that's worse than never starting at all. And nothing's promised you, nothing's ever promised you."

Lipsyte's imagery is especially powerful. Imagery is not always visual. It can appeal to any of the senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, or touch. In The Contender, the author moves quickly from one specific image to another. The opening page of the novel, for example, asks the reader to see, hear, and even smell the Harlem neighborhood where Alfred lives. The very air is acrid and repressive. The sky at twilight is "dirty gray." Lipsyte leaves his readers a little stunned that even young men fortunate enough to have automobiles and "Friday night girls" must cruise through garbage and broken glass. In only a page of text, Lipsyte evokes a setting that informs the reader precisely.

Contrast the novel's opening page with the first paragraph of Chapter 5 when Alfred experiences his first training run. Here, the air is "cool and sweet." The sky is "blood-red," filled with vigor and dawn life. Alfred can't keep the smile off his face. If he had the breath, he'd sing. He is so in tune with nature that the birds not only chatter, they share "all the bird gossip." For more than a moment, Alfred is in a new world that foreshadows the vitality that his future may hold. Throughout the novel, the imagery is especially effective. Some examples are Alfred's various ascents of the stairs to the gym, his experiences in the gym, his visit to Madison Square Garden, his attendance at the clubroom party, his trip to Coney Island, and Lipsyte's descriptions of the fights.

An author is not necessarily aware of every stylistic device as he is creating a novel. As readers, we must understand that at least some of an author's style is instinctive; it feels right or sounds right. But the total effect is that the style enhances our connection to the story. And Lipsyte's style is no exception.