I’ve written thousands of reviews for Booklist over the last 30-plus years, but I don’t think I’ve ever written one where there wasn’t something left unsaid. When your reviews rarely exceed 200 words, the cutting-room floor is always well carpeted with points that might have been made, phrases that might have been turned. Perhaps most painful to part with, though, are those juicy asides that authors often drop in around the edges of their stories. Rarely germane enough to eat up any of a reviewer’s precious 200 words, these peripheral nuggets are abandoned and too often, alas, eventually forgotten. But not this time.
I recently finished reading and thoroughly enjoying Robert Lipsyte’s memoir Accidental Sportswriter. My review will appear in the March 15 Booklist, and I hope it captures the charm and spirit of Lipsyte’s book, but one thing it doesn’t capture is a terrific story about how he came to write The Contender, his first novel (published in 1967) and the book that launched Lipsyte’s second career as a YA novelist (he won the 2001 Margaret A. Edwards Edward for lasting contribution to young-adult literature).
It all started with The Contender, and the book got its start from a conversation Lipsyte had with Cus D’Amato, the legendary boxing trainer. In the 1960s, after D’Amato’s championship run with Floyd Patterson had ended, Lipsyte met the trainer for an interview at his gym. The reporter found his subject sitting alone in his office, staring out the window past the empty gym to the darkened stairs that led up from the street. “One day,” D’Amato said, “a contender is going to walk up those stairs.” In that moment Lipsyte’s Contender was born.
But the best part of the story comes later. Not only did Lipsyte’s contender walk up D’Amato’s stairs, so did Mike Tyson. D’Amato virtually adopted the troubled teenager and taught him to fight, but not long before Tyson became Heavyweight Champion, D’Amato died. So he never saw his contender wear the crown, and thankfully, he also never saw Tyson’s resounding fall from grace, which left him convicted of rape and serving time in prison (not to mention reviled for biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear).
Talk about degrees of separation. Lipsyte’s inspirational YA novel, still in print after 43 years, about a young black fighter who rises from the streets to become a contender, lives in the shadow of a real-life contender who made the same rise to greatness but then endured the most degrading of falls. Here’s one thing you can take to the bank: Tyson will never be the sort-of subject for another YA novel.