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Free Online Study Guide-The Contender by Robert Lipsyte-Book Summary/BookNotes
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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS

SETTING

The novel is set in Harlem, New York, the same place that forms the background for many of the novels of reputed black writers like Richard Wright and James Baldwin. The Contender shows the Harlem of mid-twentieth century, when the blacks were becoming restless. Though they worked for white employers, they nurtured animosity against them and waited for an opportunity to rebel.

Alfred Brooks, the protagonist of the novel, lives in Harlem in a little apartment with his aunt and nieces. From the stoop of the apartment, he can view the life of the city. He watches as "men dragged out card tables, laughing. Cars cruised through the garbage and broken glass, older guys showed off their Friday night girls . . .packs of little kids, raggedy and skinny, raced past. . . kicking empty beer cans."

Harlem is a self-contained community that provides its black inhabitants with clubs, movie theaters, stadiums, gyms, schools, stores, and churches. The Harlem Club, which is owned by Mr. Johnson, is in the basement of a building, where petty thieves and junkies come to smoke pot and drink. They also invite innocent boys like Alfred to the club and tempt them to take drugs.

There is a park near Alfred’s house where he goes to jog in the morning and a gym where he works out. On Sundays, Alfred would accompany his aunt and nieces to a nearby church and to Aunt Dorothy’s house on Queens, with its "clean, grassy streets lined with neat little houses." It is a total contrast to the dingy quarters of Harlem.

LIST OF CHARACTERS

Major Characters

Alfred Brooks

The protagonist of the novel around whom the plot revolves. He is seventeen years old and an orphan living his with aunt in Harlem. He works for the Epsteins during the day and trains at the gym in the evening. The novel is the story of his coming of age and struggling to succeed.


Minor Characters

Aunt Pearl

Alfred’s aunt and guardian. She is good-hearted, understanding and caring. She loves Alfred as much as she loves her three girls.

James

Alfred’s friend. He falls into bad company and becomes a drug addict. Alfred loves him dearly and persuades him to join a rehabilitation clinic.

Major

An older friend of Alfred. He heads the company of black youths who hate the whites and encourage unlawful activities against them. He is responsible for spoiling the character of James.

Hollis

Major’s friend. He is a partner in all the evil deeds committed by Major and follows him like a shadow.

Donatelli

The owner and manager of the gym where Alfred works out. He is a good teacher and a disciplinarian. Underneath his hard exterior, he has a tender heart that cares for his students and protects them from adversaries.

Spoon

A former boxing champion who becomes a teacher. Alfred comes to his house in Manhattan to relax before competing in a match.

Henry

The son of Mr. Johnson and a helper at the gym. Though afflicted with polio, he works hard to establish his identity as something other than a cripple. He helps Alfred to train to become a champion boxer.

Betty

Spoon’s wife and a conscientious schoolteacher. She is kind, generous and a pleasant hostess. Whenever Alfred visits, she takes good care of him.

Bud

Assistant to Mr. Donatelli. He acts as a medic, applying balms to the wounded boxers in the ring. As a man, he is frank and forthright.

Dr. Corey

A jovial dentist who works in his clinic above the gym. He visits the gym to exercise. He also gives protective dentures to the boxers and helps them prepare for the boxing matches.

Aunt Dorothy

Aunt Pearl’s affluent sister and Alfred’s aunt. She lives in comfort in Queens with her husband and daughter. She is a good hostess who serves delicious meals to Alfred and Pearl when they visit her on Sundays.

Uncle William

Aunt Dorothy’s husband. He is a contented man with a good home and family. He is proud of the abilities and achievements of his son, Jeff.

Jeff

The intelligent and enterprising son of Uncle William and Aunt Dorothy, who is also Alfred’s cousin. He is a good student who wants to do community service to help the blacks.

Lynn and Harold

Black youth who become community minded. They persuade Alfred to join them in providing recreation to children.

Horace Marshall Davenport, Junior

A friend of Alfred who practices at the gym. Everyone calls him Jelly Belly because he loves food and is plump.

Charlene and the Twins

The children of Aunt Pearl and cousins of Alfred. They are cute little girls who are in awe of Alfred. Alfred is very fond of them.

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