Summary and Analysis Chapter 2



James is in jail. Alfred awakes in Aunt Pearl's apartment and learns from Aunt Pearl that Henry Johnson found Alfred wandering around the previous night, beaten but not permanently injured, and that Henry and Henry's father carried him home. When Aunt Pearl asks how he was hurt, Alfred tells her that he fell off a fence, but she doesn't believe him. After Aunt Pearl goes to work and his cousins go out to play, Alfred tries to eat a little and watches some television (where he sees a show depicting a white suburban family, whose life stands in stark contrast to his own); but he spends most of the day asleep.

That night, Alfred goes out, avoiding streets where he might meet Major or his henchmen. Alfred sees Henry Johnson but avoids him, too, because he is in no mood to express gratitude. Without consciously meaning to, Alfred winds up in front of the building housing Donatelli's Gym. Alfred thinks he spots Major in the distance and runs across the street, but he realizes that the man he saw is not his adversary, and he feels ashamed. He wonders if he will always be a slave to fear. Although Alfred shakes with uncertainty, he somehow climbs the stairs to the third-floor gym where he meets a stocky, stoic older man. Alfred says that he has come to be a fighter.


In this chapter, Lipsyte makes especially effective use of setting. Aunt Pearl's apartment is a haven for Alfred. He is tempted to stay there and sleep indefinitely. Through the window, he hears the sometimes sweet, sometimes threatening street sounds of Harlem: children playing, horns honking, a quartet of street singers' blending harmony, a police siren forcing reality through the joy. The street is especially dangerous for Alfred this night. As he leaves the building, a little boy on the stoop tells him that Major and Sonny are hunting for him. For reasons that even Alfred does not understand, he arrives at Donatelli's Gym, which recalls Henry's invitation to Alfred in the first chapter to join him at the gym, as well as Alfred's apparent contempt for the gym and Henry's mundane job there.

The gym, too, is a kind of haven; but unlike the cave and the apartment, it is a haven that must be earned. Lipsyte's imagery is often specific and strong, but never more so than in Alfred's original ascent to Donatelli's Gym. Symbolically and literally, Alfred has to climb to get there. The stairs represent a psychological and spiritual climb even more than a physical one. A quivering chill runs up Alfred's legs; his teeth grind; a ball of ice forms in his gut. The staircase reeks of "stale wine and antiseptic and sweat and urine and liniment." Hundreds of steps seem to loom before him. This is more than just a staircase, and Alfred knows it.


Lenox Lenox Avenue in Harlem.

big cats here, other African American men.

spoons and needles paraphernalia used in the preparation of drugs, specifically heroin.

Joe Louis African American boxer Joseph Louis Barrow (1914-81), world heavyweight boxing champion (1937-49). Louis was revered by blacks for his leadership, athletic prowess, and demeanor.

Sugar Ray Robinson African American boxer; original name, Walker Smith (1921-89); outstanding boxer, world welterweight and five-time middleweight champion.