Saturday, August 20, 2011

"The Contender" by Robert Lipsyte

Since I was going to have a long weekend to relax and read, I decided I should tackle a few more of the "classics" on an old list I saved from a previous patron. This book was next in line and I ordered it from work, even though it really didn't look like anything I was interested in. As they say, don't judge a book by its cover - or its storyline.

Alfred Brooks is a 17-year-old high school drop out in late 1960s Harlem. He's black, but he's not proud. He has managed to find himself a small job at a local grocery owned by a Jewish couple; there's not much chance of bettering his position (or so he thinks) and he misses hanging out with his best friend, James.

One Friday night he goes out to locate James; he finds him at the local "club" hanging out with his thuggish friends, Major, Hollis, and some others. While talking about his job, Alfred lets slip that due to their religion, his employers leave money in the safe every Friday night; of course, the "bad" boys decide to rob the store. Unfortunately, they are in such a hurry that Alfred doesn't have a chance to tell them about the brand new alarm system that was just installed (he claims he "forgot" to tell them; maybe he did, and maybe he didn't). James is arrested while the other boys manage to escape, and of course, they come looking for revenge.

Alfred is tired of his life, and tired of being pushed around by the gang. One night he wanders into Donatelli's Gym, and he meets the owner himself. They talk, and Alfred states he wants to be a fighter. Donatelli attempts to talk him out of it, explaining that the hours of training will be grueling and that Alfred will probably quit within a few weeks, but the young man is determined. The book then follows Alfred on his quest to become a professional boxer, showing him doing a lot of repetitive training and becoming frustrated that he's not put into matches right away. Donatelli explains that it takes a lot to be a fighter, not just good moves; there must be an inner fire, too. Eventually Alfred does fight, and he discovers that while he's not too bad a boxer, he has an inner strength to fight much bigger battles in his life, including rescuing his friend James from the stranglehold of drugs.

This was a very well-written, and still timely, novel about a young black man. I had to flip to the copyright page to remind myself that it was written back in the day and not just last year; the issues are still very relevant (think of all the gang trouble we have in inner cities, especially those that deal/use drugs). There are some things that date the book a bit; there's a group of activists that try to enlist Alfred in their cause, claiming that "whitey" is holding back Alfred and that joining them is his only way of advancing his life. There are many who would argue that race relations are still strained, and probably many who would claim that "whitey" is still holding down the man, be he African-American, Hispanic, or any other ethnicity.

Alfred's transformation is believable and a wonderful thing to watch. He struggles to follow Donatelli's authority/advice, and at one point, pretty much decides that he knows what's best for himself, skipping his workouts and hanging out with the gang. Of course he sees the error of his ways, and when he slinks back into the gym, Donatelli has a talk with him - but doesn't turn him away. It was a very good read, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good coming-of-age story.

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