The Contender (Lipsyte novel)

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The Contender
Author Robert Lipsyte
Country United States
Language English
Genre Young adult literature
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 227 pp
Followed by The Brave

The Contender is the debut novel by American author and sports journalist Robert Lipsyte. It was published in 1967.

The book's plot evolves a black seventeen-year-old man named Alfred Brooks, a high school dropout living with Aunt Pearl and her 3 daughters in Harlem, New York City. He begins to train at a boxing club in the streets because he has a lot of issues, including his friend James is sent to jail and on probation after robbing the grocery store he works at, and Major, his bully and leader of the gang, is responsible on putting James on drug addiction. There, he learns that there is more than just fighting and becoming the contender.

Plot synopsis[edit]

The Contender is a coming-of-age novel whose protagonist, a black seventeen-year-old high school dropout named Alfred Brooks, lives with his Aunt Pearl and her three daughters in Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood in Manhattan, New York City, in the mid-1960s. Alfred's father deserted the family when Alfred was ten years old, and his mother died when he was thirteen. On both occasions, his best friend, James, stood by him.

Now, Alfred and James seem headed in opposite directions. One Friday night in June, James breaks into Epsteins' grocery with members of a street gang led by the novel's antagonist, a street gang leader named Major. Alfred is a clerk at the store and inadvertently reveals that there may be money in the cash register on a Friday night; he forgets to tell James about the new alarm system recently installed. Only James is arrested; he is put on probation. Meanwhile, Alfred begins training at Mr. Donatelli's Gym. A wise mentor, Donatelli insists that no one is promised anything, everyone is treated equally, and a man finishes what he begins. The journey, the climb, is more important to Donatelli than the highest goal. Striving is key. Alfred should try to become a contender and let the championships of life come if they will, according to Donatelli.

Alfred begins training at the gym and progresses well. As a spectator, he attends a fight night at Madison Square Garden. When challenged later that evening, he is able to stand up to Major, leader of the street gang. However, Alfred's training is long and sometimes tedious. Alfred cannot yet trust himself; he is too susceptible to the opinions of others. Alfred's employers, the Epsteins, seem to doubt him after the burglary. Eventually, Alfred weakens. He attends a party at the gang's clubroom, indulges in alcohol and marijuana, and passes out. Alfred sees James at the clubroom and discovers that he has become addicted to heroin. Both boys seem lost.

After a chaotic Sunday at Coney Island with Major and the gang, Alfred decides to quit boxing. When he visits the gym to clean out his locker, he finds Mr. Donatelli alone. In attempting to apologize to his mentor, Alfred finds that he does not really want to quit. He needs to find out what he could become if he really tries. He reaches a sort of epiphany, a moment of clarity and self-awareness. He wants to become a contender.

Alfred resumes training with renewed enthusiasm. Soon, he is allowed to spar, and in October he has his first amateur fight at union hall at Long Island City. Alfred makes rookie mistakes but wins. Especially impressive that night is an older welterweight named Elston Hubbard. In November, Alfred knocks out his second opponent but is terribly upset because he thinks he has nearly killed the other fighter. His third fight, in December, is a draw, because Alfred is reluctant to throw a punch. Mr. Donatelli advises him that it is time to quit. Alfred lacks the "killer instinct" necessary to go very far, and he could be seriously injured in the ring. Alfred has one more fight scheduled, and he insists on finishing what he has started.

Just before fight time, Alfred, a lightweight, learns that his final opponent is Elston Hubbard, the older, bigger, and stronger ex-Marine who fought so well the night of Alfred's first fight. Donatelli wants to cancel, but Alfred knows he must go on. He barely survives the first two rounds and is dominated by Hubbard. Nevertheless, Alfred finds a few tactics that work, and the third round is a war. Standing toe-to-toe in a brutal exchange, Alfred refuses to fall. He goes the distance. Although he loses a unanimous decision, Alfred knows that he has won the important fight. He has proven to himself that he can persevere and be a contender in life, as well as in the boxing ring. He also earns Hubbard's respect.

But Alfred has one more task to accomplish. James is in deep trouble. Apparently stoned, he crashed through the front window of Epsteins' grocery in an awkward attempt at burglary. Alfred finds him at a secret cave where the two hung out as boys. Applying his new attitude and some tough love, Alfred convinces James that there is hope; he helps James to the hospital.

With the encouragement of his college-educated cousin, Jeff, and a schoolteacher called "Spoon," who used to be a fighter, Alfred will finish high school and work with young people in public recreation. He has become a true contender.


  • Alfred Brooks is a seventeen-year-old African American male and the protagonist of the novel. He recently dropped out of high school and appears to be indecisive about the direction of his life. Orphaned at a young age, he lives in Harlem with his Aunt Pearl and his three cousins. In the first few chapters, Alfred appears shy and uncertain about his future. After learning that his best friend James has chosen a destructive path, Alfred decides to join Donatelli's Gym and train as an amateur boxer. Throughout the course of the novel, readers see a timid adolescent transcend into a confident, strong character who appears to have found a purpose in life. By the end of the novel, after having won his first two matches, and putting up a good show in his third match, Mr. Donatelli suggests that Alfred retire from boxing because he lacks the “killer instinct” needed to be a prize-winning fighter, but suggests that Alfred take his newfound strength and determination and apply it to a new endeavor. Alfred does retire after one final match which he loses, but in which he earns everyone's respect, including that of his opponent. Before the novel closes, Alfred has evolved into a mature, selfless adolescent who seems destined to apply what he learned from being a disciplined boxer to having a bright future all the while trying to save his best friend from continuing to be self-destructive.
  • Aunt Pearl takes in her nephew Alfred after he is orphaned at an early age. She is a devoted, hard working, and loving woman as evidenced by the many sacrifices she makes not only for her own three children, but for Alfred as well. She too has experienced difficulties in life, some of which she divulges to Alfred. Although there are times that her questions seem obtrusive to Alfred, he realizes that she truly has an invested interest in her nephew, and that she truly does care about his well-being.
  • Major is the antagonist of the novel. He is described as a “devil in disguise”. Major is responsible for leading Alfred’s best friend James down a path of crime, drugs, and alcohol. He lives a life of crime and orchestrated a robbery at the Epsteins' grocery store, Alfred's place of employment. He is the leader of a group that has some other characters in it by the names of Hollis and Sonny. These three team up against Alfred and beat him up in the first chapter.
  • James is Alfred's best friend and also a high school dropout. While James only appears minimally, we learn a great deal about him from Alfred's thoughts and what others say about him. He is a weak character, as compared to Alfred, childhood gathering place for both James and Alfred. Alfred finds his childhood hiding from the police who are searching for him for breaking into the Epsteins' grocery store. Alfred convinces James that he needs to take responsibility for his recent criminal behavior by entering rehab and accepting his impending future jail sentence. Alfred tells him that no matter what, he will stay by the side of his “old” friend.
  • Mr. Donatelli, affectionately called Donatelli by most of the novel’s characters, is owner and manager of Donatelli’s Gym. He becomes Alfred's savior by hinting at Alfred's potential to become a respected boxer while encouraging his new protégé to make decisions wisely and to act decisively. Although he comes across as harsh, he is a tender, well respected man who has gained respect as a disciplined trainer who cares about the well being of his students both mentally and physically, in and out of the ring.


Themes explored in this novel include issues of socio-economic stance, racism, and fighting for your goals and what you believe in. It also focuses on positive character development and peer pressure. Racism was one of the main themes.


Before you can be a champion, you have to be a contender.


Chapter 1: Alfred wait's patiently for his friend then he looks for him at the clubhouse and their he finds James hanging out with the wrong group of people. He accidentally mentions the vulnerability of the grocery store Alfred works for. Silent alarm goes off. He hides in a cave and has flash backs of his previous years and how much things have changed. Alfred climbs out of the cave opening and after a short walk he finds the goons that had foolishly attempted to rob the Jews and the goons beat Alfred to a pulp.

Chapter 2: James is arrested and now Alfred doesn't know where he is. Major is out to get Alfred. Aunt Pearl tries talking to Alfred after he gets beat up by Major and his gang. Alfred goes for a walk and finds Donatelli's gym. He is scared to go in alone but then he decides to go inside. He tells Donatelli that he has come to be a fighter.

Chapter 3: Alfred begins training to be a contender at Donatelli's gym. He meets new people and he is sometimes bullied by some of the other fighters there. Alfred never gives up though because he always has Henry there to support him and give him some encouraging words to help him out. Donatelli tells him what it takes and what Alfred has to do to be a boxer.

Chapter 4: Alfred starts to experience some of the criticism that Mr. Donatelli was talking about. Alfred goes running in the morning and the cops laugh at him and people tell him that he is crazy. He goes to church and he sees Major and his gang. Alfred and his Aunt Pearl and her three daughters go to their Aunt Dorothy's house and Alfred talks to his Uncle Wilson about his job and making something out of himself one day.

Chapter 5: Alfred takes the alarm clock from Aunt Pearl's room and sets it early enough for him to get up and run. There are policeman outside at the park when he is running and they asked him where he was going in such a hurry and when Alfred tells them that he was in training to be a boxer, they just laughed at him. Aunt Pearl is in the dark about the whole wanting to be a boxer thing. When Alfred gets home from his run Aunt Pearl asked him where he was because she thought Alfred was in some kind of trouble. When Alfred went to work he saw that Lou Epstein, his boss, didn't trust him as well as he did before Major and James tried to rob his store. He wouldn't even let Alfred take the money to the bank. Then, at the end of the chapter Alfred sees Henry on the street and he asks him what time he is coming by the gym.

Chapter 6: Alfred goes in the gym and finds all these other boxers and he almost wants to leave but he knows that if he left then, then he probably would never be back again. Then, he meets Bud Martin, an assistant trainer, and Dr. Corey, the dentist that makes the mouthpieces for the boxers. Alfred meets two other boxers doing sit ups and push ups and one is really nice and shows Alfred a few things and the other is really mean and doesn't give him the time of day.

Chapter 7: Alfred goes to his first boxing match to watch one of Mr. Donatelli's students, Willie Streeter, box. He goes with Henry, Bud, and fellow boxer Jelly Belly. During the fight Willie is hurt very bad so Mr. Donatelli calls off the fight. Willie didn't agree with the decision call off the fight and argues with Mr. Donatelli that he could handle a little blood. In the clinic Alfred meets Spoon, an old boxer who is now a teacher. On the way home, Alfred runs into Major and his gang.

Chapter 8: Major tries to get Alfred to help him rob the grocery store again but no matter what Major tries Alfred just keeps saying no. He knows it is wrong and he doesn't want to get in trouble behind Major. Major even pulls a knife on Alfred but he still stands his ground and says no. Major tells Alfred that he has until Thursday to make his decision but Major