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Free Study Guide for The Contender by Robert Lipsyte Free BookNotes

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Alfred Brooks feels restless in his Harlem home as he waits for his friend James to arrive and go with him to a movie. When James fails to show up, Alfred goes to look for him at the club. Although James seems happy to see Alfred, he does not want to go to the movies with him.

Several boys in the club, headed by Major, make fun of Alfred and force him to give them his allowance. Only when James intervenes do they let him go. The boys then tell Alfred of their plan to rob the house of the Epsteins, Alfred’s employer, and ask him to join them. Alfred refuses and tries unsuccessfully to persuade James from accompanying them.

Alfred feels helpless. He blames himself for giving information about his employers and tempting the boys to rob their home. He goes out into the street and walks aimlessly. When he remembers that there is a burglar alarm in the Epsteins’ home, he worries that his friend James will be caught by the police. In panic, he starts running towards the house to save James, but he is too late. The police have already arrived and arrested someone that appears to be James. All the other boys have succeeded in running away from the police.

Hoping that James was one of the ones who got away, Alfred looks for him in the park. He crawls inside a cave where he and James had hidden in the past. He sits and waits, hoping James will arrive. As he waits, Alfred thinks about the past, recollecting how he and James had shared their joys and sorrows in the park. Whenever they had wanted to avoid the company of bullies, like Major, they had hidden in the cave, where James would often entertain Alfred by mimicking his teachers and classmates. He also remembers how James had given him moral support in the cave when his mother died and his father left home. He regrets that James has become a friend to with Major, who is nothing but trouble.

When James does not show up, Alfred leaves the cave and walks towards his house. As he goes down the street, it is dark and isolated. Suddenly, Major blocks his way and curses him for risking their lives. He then jumps on Alfred and beats him. When Major departs, Alfred gets up and walks unsteadily towards home.


The book opens with a bleak description of Harlem, where the protagonist lives. All around, there is dirt, and loud noises fill the air. There is also danger everywhere. When Alfred goes to the club to find his friend James, Major and his gang force him to part with his money. They also try unsuccessfully to persuade him to join them in robbing the home of the Epsteins, who are Alfred’s employers. Later Major blocks his path as Alfred walks towards home. Angry that he did not warn him about the burglar alarm, Major beats Alfred.

After he leaves the club, Alfred worries about the robbery and James’ participation in it. He partially blames himself for causing the robbery, for he has talked about the Epsteins’ home to the other boys. Then when he remembers the burglar alarm at his employers’ home, he panics. He races towards the house, hoping to warn James and save him from being arrested.

Alfred is too late. The police have already arrived and arrested someone, who appears to be James. Hoping that perhaps it is not his friend who has been caught, Alfred goes to the park to look for James. He crawls into a cave to search for him. When he does not locate him inside, Alfred sits down and recalls the many things that he and James have shared with each other inside the cave. It is obvious that Alfred truly cares about James and considers him a good friend. He is upset that James has chosen to become a friend of Major and join him in illegal activities. Alfred is clearly a moral person and a good friend.

The first chapter also brings to light the plight of black Americans in a country ruled and dominated by whites. The youth are particularly bitter about their treatment and try to strike back at the whites. The robbery of the Epsteins, a wealthy white family, has some racial motivation.

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