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Alfred Brooks is the protagonist of the novel. He is intelligent, talented and hardworking. He desires to be successful in life and, therefore, stays away from young criminals, like Major. During the novel, he joins Donatelliís gym and trains to become a boxer.
The struggle of growing up and making the right decisions is Alfredís major antagonist. Life is made more difficult for him by Major, who tries to tempt black youth into illegal activities. Although Major persuades James to permanently join him, Alfred resists his temptations after a couple of outings. When Major is rejected, he tries to harm Alfred.
The climax occurs when Alfred decides who he is and what he wants in life. Although he has fought successfully in two matches, he decides he does not want to pursue a boxing career, for he does not like inflicting injuries on another human being. In spite of his hard work and victories in the ring, Alfred tells Donatelli that he will only fight in one more final match. Donatelli believes that Alfred has made the right decision, for he is lacking the "killer instinct" that a champion boxer needs to possess.
The story ends in comedy. Alfred devotes himself to his training and proves himself to be a contender in the ring by winning two matches. He discovers, however, that he does not want to be a boxer and inflict pain and injury on other human beings. As a result, he fights one final match and then permanently resigns from the boxing ring in order to pursue his education, to work with children at the recreation center, and to help his friend James overcome his problems. Lipsyte gives every indication that Alfredís dedication and determination will make him a success in life, just like he was a success in the ring.
SHORT PLOT / CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The novel opens on a Friday night in the home of Alfred Brooks, a seventeen-year-old black who lives in Harlem with Aunt Pearl. Alfred looks restless, as he waits for the arrival of his good friend, James. When James fails to appear at the appointed time, Alfred goes to the club in search of him. At the club, James welcomes Alfred but does not want to go to the movies with him. Major and Hollis, two delinquent teens, are also at the club. They tease Alfred about working in a white manís house and try to take his money. James intervenes and stops the two boys from harassing Alfred.
When Alfred mentions that his employers, the Epsteins, go to synagogue on Friday nights, Major pounces on the opportunity and decides to rob their house in their absence. He invites Alfred to come along, but he refuses. James, however, succumbs to their pressure and leaves with Major and Hollis. Suddenly, Alfred remembers the security alarm at the Epsteins, which is sure to sound when the boys try to break in the house. Not wanting James to get caught, Alfred runs towards the Epsteins, but he is too late. The police have arrived and arrested one of the boys. Alfred fears that it is James.
As Alfred walks towards home after unsuccessfully looking for James, Major appears and curses him for not saying anything about the alarm. He then repeatedly strikes Alfred, sending him to the ground. Henry, who works at Donatelliís gym, and his father find Alfred in a daze and take him home. Henry invites Alfred to come and work out at the gym. Since Alfred would like to become a boxer, he decides to accept Henryís invitation. He goes to the gym and meets Donatelli, the manager and trainer. When Alfred tells him he wants to become a boxer, Donatelli warns him about how difficult the training will be.
Alfred begins his training with vigor and works hard to tone his muscles and build his strength. Every morning he jogs in the park, and every evening he works out at the gym. He is pleased with his progress and hopeful of his future. Alfred then allows Major to divert his attention from his training. When Major invites him to a party, Alfred accepts because he hopes to see James there. At the party, Major persuades him to drink vodka and Arlene gives him a cigarette with marijuana. By the time he spies James, Alfred is inebriated and unsteady; however, he is lucid enough to know that James is taking drugs, which upsets him greatly.
Disappointed in his behavior, Alfred stays in bed for almost two days. Then Major calls and insists that he go to Coney Island Amusement Park with him; he has stolen a car for the purpose. When Alfred resists, Major drags him to the car. As they near the park, they pass the police. Major panics and abandons the car. Alfred has no choice but to jump out and run. When he returns home, he is so ashamed of his behavior that he decides he is unworthy of continuing to train at Donatelliís gym. The next day he goes to collect his things; Donatelli, however, offers him words of encouragement, which cause Alfred to change his mind. He begins to train again with added enthusiasm. After six weeks, Alfred feels fit and thinks he is ready to face an opponent in the ring. Donatelli does not agree and says that Alfred has much more work to do before he is ready.
After months of additional training, Donatelli announces that Alfred is ready to box and schedules him for three matches. In the first match, Alfred is very nervous, for he is bothered by the bright lights, the jeers of the crowd, and the ability of his opponent. But Alfred is also determined and refuses to give up. At the end of the match, he is declared the winner. In his second match, Alfred seriously injures his opponent, knocking him out. As a result, he becomes disillusioned with boxing, for he does not like physically hurting another human being. He tells Donatelli he wants to resign from the ring after his third match. In this last match, Alfredís opponent is a strong contender, much heavier and more experienced than Alfred. He overpowers Alfred easily in the first two rounds, injuring him; but Alfred refuses to give up, fighting courageously and dealing blows to his rival whenever he gets the chance. Although he loses the match, Alfred feels good that he has fought the entire match, proving he is a true contender. He can retire from the ring with pride and devote himself to gaining a higher education and helping disadvantaged children at the recreation center.
When he returns home feeling happy and relieved, Aunt Pearl tells Alfred that the police have come to the house looking for James, who has attempted another robbery at the Epsteins. Alfred is very concerned about his friend and goes out in search of him. He finds James hiding in the cave in the park, where they use to hide as children. Although James asks Alfred for money, he refuses his friend, for he does not want him to buy more drugs. Instead, he talks James into entering a rehabilitation center in order to turn his life around. The novel ends on a note of hope for James and fulfillment for Alfred.