Alfred, the protagonist, is the most dynamic character in the book. He undergoes many changes, both physical and emotional, and grows significantly throughout the length of the text. Lipsyte explores a number of issues— especially those that confront teenagers—through Alfred: growing up in a dangerous neighborhood, financial struggles, drug and crime temptations, lack of education, lack of direction and lack of a sense of self worth.
Mr. Donatelli is the vehicle through which Alfred changes and evolves as a person. Mr. Donatelli is more than a boxing trainer; he functions as a life teacher. He always tells it like it is, is completely candid, and never sugarcoats the truth. He understands Alfred's motivations to be involved in boxing without Alfred ever having to tell him.
Aunt Pearl takes care of Alfred in the wake of Alfred's parents' death. She is a positive familial force in his life, although she disapproves of the boxing. The violence of the sport worries her, and she wishes Alfred would devote himself to safer, more productive activities. However, she allows Alfred to do it because she understands what it means to be able to pursue a dream, regardless of whether or not it comes to fruition.
James is Alfred's best friend, but James represents yet another aspect of Alfred's life that is stripped away. Throughout the book Alfred struggles to maintain and regain James's trust and friendship, as well as attempt to steer him away from drugs and crime. He and James used to do everything together, but throughout the course of the book their paths diverge, almost irreconcilably.
Read an in-depth analysis of James.
Major and Hollis try to push Alfred in the direction of James. They invite Alfred to parties and encourage his involvement in crime and drugs. They are also part of the reason he starts boxing—in the beginning of the book they beat him up and threaten him if he does not help them break into the Epsteins' store.
Alfred's boss, whose relationship with Alfred is mired when James, Major, and Hollis try to break into the store. Alfred's hard work helps to restore Mr. Epstein's trust in him, as does the knowledge that Alfred trains as a boxer. As an old boxer himself, Mr. Epstein develops a kinship with Alfred and pays for his lessons.
Henry gets Alfred involved in boxing by mentioning that he works with Mr. Donatelli. Henry is a father figure for Alfred, helping him with his training inside and outside of the ring. Henry brings Alfred home after he is badly beaten up by Major and Hollis.
Spoon is a role model for Alfred not only because Spoon was a boxer, but because he gave up boxing in order to go back to school. Spoon's house is the one in which Alfred spends eating, resting, and relaxing the day of a fight.