Summary and Analysis Chapter 20



When Alfred returns home after his last match, Aunt Pearl is visibly upset. Alfred quickly explains that he is so late because everyone went to eat at a restaurant where Jelly now works. However, Aunt Pearl is not concerned about Alfred's tardiness or even the injuries to his face. James is in trouble. He broke through Epsteins' front window earlier that night, cutting himself but escaping as the police arrived. He is hurt and in hiding. Alfred knows where, and he takes off running to find him.

James is in the cave in the park when Alfred arrives. He is bleeding badly from a cut on his arm but is more concerned about scoring another fix. Alfred wants to take him to the hospital, warning James that he could lose his arm if not his life if he does not get medical attention soon. Alfred reminds James of their long friendship and encourages him about the future, but James has little hope. He says the police will arrest him. James fears incarceration for violating probation rules. As for the future, he is sure that "Whitey" won't allow him to succeed. Alfred quickly tries to convince James to adopt a different attitude, but his old friend has not learned the lessons of life that now bolster Alfred and help him to overcome adversity. Finally, Alfred simply acts as though he is leaving. Facing isolation, James gives in. With James leaning heavily on Alfred, the two exit the cave and start for the hospital.


The book ends as it began, with Alfred in search of James. Their friendship is one of the key themes in the novel, and it adds to the structure. Up to the first attempted burglary of Epsteins' grocery, when Alfred refused to participate, the lives of the two ran parallel. After that break, Alfred ascends while James declines. Now, Alfred literally and figuratively hopes to lift James, keep him alive, and help him find his way. Alfred recalls that James was there for him the night his mother died and that the two often shared their dreams, some of which were unrealistic, some possible. When James asks why he is doing this, Alfred responds confidently, "Because I know I can, James. And you're my partner."

Even in the brief scene in the cave, we see that the lessons of Donatelli's code have been woven deeply into the fabric of Alfred's character. He wants to pass them on to his friend. When James denies that he is an addict, Alfred immediately confronts him with words that recall the scene near the end of Chapter 17 when James crouches behind a garbage pail: "Look at you, like a garbage rat. You hooked all right."

Alfred relies on some of Donatelli's statements, as well as the mentor's philosophy. When Alfred tries to encourage James about the future, the addict sardonically interrupts that he probably will be just a "grocery boy." Alfred has learned to respect that exact opportunity and echoes Donatelli in his response: "For start. Nothing's promised you, man . . ." Nor does Alfred tolerate James' excuse that "Whitey" will never allow him to succeed. Alfred the fighter says, "Dare him to stop you."

Alfred has come a long way. When they were younger, it was James who seemed the stronger. He stood by his friend when Alfred's father deserted his family and when his mother died. When Alfred dropped out of school, it was James who tried to dissuade him. But James soon dropped out, too, and serious character flaws were hidden beneath the surface. Now, Alfred is clearly the leader. As Donatelli put it in Chapter 3, he is the man who is climbing, the man who knows he may never reach the top but is willing to "sweat and bleed to get up as high as his legs and his brains and his heart will take him." Alfred has become a contender.