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Still Listening for the Footsteps

November 18, 1990|ROBERT LIPSYTE | Lipsyte, a former New York Times, CBS and NBC correspondent, won an Emmy this year as host of the nightly local PBS show, "The Eleventh Hour." and

On a magical night 25 years ago this month, an ancient boxing shaman told me a story without an ending, a fabulous gift that transformed me into the most rewarded of genre writers, the novelist for teen-agers.

At the time, I only knew I was in Las Vegas to cover the heavyweight title match between Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson, and that this old man, Cus D'Amato, who had once managed Floyd, was a reporter's trove of arcana and insight. After dinner, we sat by the deserted, neon-splashed swimming pool of our casino hotel and Cus reminisced about the night he had waited by the door of his old ghetto gym, listening for the footsteps of a "contender."

If a kid came up those dark, narrow, twisting flights of stairs alone and running scared, said Cus, there was a chance he might stay with it, hang tough, find himself through dedication and sacrifice. Fear, said Cus, was like a fire. It can destroy you or it can make you a hero, a contender in the ring and in life.

I sat up the rest of that night aflame. To me, at 27, becoming a contender meant writing fiction. I had never made it up those stairs because I had nothing to say. But now I had questions to answer. What kind of kid would come up those dark stairs? What would he be running from? Toward? There was only one way to find out.

Incredibly, when I got back to New York after the fight, there was a letter from the Junior Books department of Harper & Row, wondering if I had "ever considered writing a novel with the ring as its milieu."

Funny you should ask. I've started already. All I can tell you is that the book will have dark, narrow, twisting stairs, and that it will be titled "The Contender."

Because the novel was short and linear, sexless (though violent), and the protagonist was 17 years old, it was packaged for a newly created market, Young Adult, 12-and-up. It was published in 1967 and rode a literary wave.

Led by Ursula Nordstrom and Charlotte Zolotow of Harpers, a dedicated band of editors, teachers and librarians created a bridge of words from illustrated children's books to a lifetime of reading with the novels of such disparate writers as S. E. Hinton ("The Outsiders"), M. E. Kerr ("Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack"), Paul Zindel ("The Pigman"), Robert Cormier ("The Chocolate War") and Judy Blume ("Forever").

Of course, literature for adolescents thrived before books were branded YA . What is "Huckleberry Finn," "Little Women" and "The Catcher in the Rye"? But now there were suddenly textbooks, learned journals, library specialists, graduate studies, all supported by publishing departments filling orders for designated bookstore and library shelves.

Although "The Contender" was a commercial and critical success, the boom went on without me. I left sportswriting to write old adult novels and screenplays with varying success. But nothing came close to the response I was getting from that YA novel, that sense of reaching out and touching lives. White girls from Iowa wrote that even though Alfred Brooks was a black boy from Harlem, his hopes and fears were theirs. Black boys from Harlem wrote that they read the book because they had to, for school, and liked it until the ending. There was no ending. What happened to Alfred Brooks? Did he get his friend, James, off heroin? Did he finish school? Did he make it as a boxer even though he had no killer instinct?

I answered them all, gently suggesting that the next chapter was theirs to write. I didn't tell them I considered myself retired, a one-shot YA author, my future in rewriting King Lear, not Kid Lear.

And then one magical night 14 years ago, while writing an article for Mother Jones on books that had shaped me as a kid, the phrase "in the prison of my fat" dropped out of the typewriter. I'd been very fat. How fat? When the number 200 rolled up on the scale, I bailed out. How did I lose all that fat? Well . . . The letters for "One Fat Summer" were surprisingly similar. Younger readers make characters their friends. One girl said she understood the fat boy perfectly because she was "skinny as a broomstick and six feet tall."

This time, I visited schools and libraries and answered questions. Yes, being so fat had made me a reader and a writer; yes, my own children read my books; no, I wasn't rich, but meeting them and talking about my characters as if they were alive was a thrill beyond royalty statements. But I couldn't answer the most frequent question. I didn't know what happened to Alfred Brooks.

I could tell them about Cus, though. A dozen years after our first meeting, he heard the footsteps of his contender, an incorrigible 14-year-old who was punching apart a reform school near Cus' rural retirement home. One of the counselors, a former boxer, asked Cus to help out. Eventually, Cus adopted the boy, Mike Tyson. Cus died just before Mike became heavyweight champion of the world.

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