Summary and Analysis Chapter 17



The family gathers at the home of Uncle Wilson and Aunt Dorothy for Thanksgiving. Despite Wilson's usual display of pompous authority, Alfred thinks it is the best Thanksgiving ever. He is surprised that he gets along so well with his cousin Jeff, the college boy. Jeff expresses an interest in boxing, and Alfred is curious about his cousin's plans after college. Initially intending to work in Africa with the Peace Corps, Jeff is having second thoughts. He wonders if he might not do more good by staying home and working with black communities in the inner-city. Alfred surprises Aunt Pearl by expressing an interest in finishing high school. He and Jeff discuss the idea of black recreation centers.

When Alfred returns home, the appearance of James, who looks like a "shuddering old man" hiding behind a garbage can near the front entrance to the building, disturbs Alfred. James wants help, in the form of money. When Alfred offers food and shelter, James insists that he needs money for just one more fix. With regret, Alfred gives him six dollars, and James immediately takes off.


This chapter foreshadows the ending of the novel in two ways. First, we discover that Alfred has mixed feelings about boxing. He enjoys the workouts and the camaraderie at Donatelli's Gym, but the violence of the sport bothers him.

As Alfred and his cousin Jeff become friends, he and Jeff find a common ground in their belief that they can contribute to a growing independence of the black community. The new Alfred pleasantly surprises Jeff. He recalls an Alfred who "seemed to just drift along." This recalls how Alfred noticed, in Chapter 12, the "hungry-eyed" faces on street corners in Harlem, hopelessly waiting for something to happen. Alfred is no longer likely to join them. Now he wonders if he might be able to finish his high school education and provide leadership in a recreation center. Alfred quotes Spoon repeatedly; the schoolteacher obviously has inspired him.

James' return to Alfred's life contrasts with the bright hopes of the Thanksgiving holiday. James is now in the depths of his addiction. It is appropriate that he hovers behind a garbage can. James' eyes, once bright and full of life, are sunken. He shivers inside a torn overcoat. All he can think of is another fix. As Alfred continues to find himself, James is lost.