As a social statistic he's a dropout, on the streets of Harlem he's tagged ""Uncle Tom,"" once he and James were partners (but James is breaking into stores, taking dope), in the gym talking to the manager his palms sweat--can he become a champion? ""You have to start by wanting to be a contender."" Mr. Donstelli tells Alfred, ""... it's the climbing that makes the man."" Driven by the need to prove himself, sometimes backsliding, Alfred convinces everyone--especially himself--that he has heart, becomes convinced that it pays to try (maybe even at school, maybe even helping other people, maybe even James). The satisfied exhaustion of jogging around a track, of straining at sit-ups, of perfecting punches; the tension (""an ice ball"") before a fight; the pain of sticking it out in the ring against a better boxer--everything that makes Alfred a contender also makes this the best sports novel since early Tunis, with a similar comment on sports that aren't. Equally forthright are the scenes of Harlem: junkies whisper in the hallways, women bring home leftovers from white parties, policemen patrol warily (and a mother worries about bad influences, a father worries about the future). This is so good--so honest and taut and incisive--that the few contrivances (Alfred's boss turns out to be an old boxer, his inspiration a schoolteacher ex-boxer) are more to be regretted than condemned. A crackling story that no boy should miss.