Fat City was first published in 1969 and is the only novel by Leonard Gardner. It has recently been republished by New York Review of Books in the U.S. and by Pushkin Press in the U.K. It was made into a film in 1972 which was directed by John Huston and starred Stacy Keach & Jeff Bridges; the screenplay was written by Leonard Gardner himself. I saw the film years ago and though I liked it I remember being a little underwhelmed by it. I would like to watch the film again to see what I make of it now but seeing that the book was published in January this year by Pushkin Press I thought I’d read it as part of Stu’s Pushkin Press Fortnight. It gets labeled as a ‘boxing novel’ which could be enough to put me off a book but it’s not about boxing but about the boxers themselves.
The novel takes place mostly in Stockton, California; I’m not sure about the time period but the Wikipedia article suggest the late ’50s; in a way it doesn’t really matter too much as it’s all quite timeless which is something that I like about a lot of good American literature. The two main characters are Billy Tully, a man nearing his thirtieth birthday, whose wife left him a few years before and with whom he is still in love and Ernie Munger, a young kid who works at a late night petrol station. Tully hasn’t boxed for years but is looking to get back into it while Munger is a young kid just starting out. Tully is not only past his prime but he has a drink problem as well. His life consists of low-wage jobs, cheap bars and cheap hotels. But he’s trying to get back into boxing as he believes he still has a few good years in him and so he heads to a gym to have a workout and meets the eighteen year old Ernie Munger whom he spars with. Tully is impressed with Ernie and encourages him to see his old manager, Ruben, at the Lido Gym. Tully realises how out of shape he is and heads for his local bar where he meets the regulars Earl and Oma. All the main characters are introduced in this first chapter and it’s interesting how the subsequent chapters follow the individuals in their separate lives only for them to interact further on. It’s not a groundbreaking technique but it’s expertly done and suits the story that Gardner is telling.
Most of the characters are living on the edge in some way but none are completely broken and they still have dreams. Tully for example is trying to revive his boxing career, but he can’t help looking back, back to when he was with his wife and his boxing career was on the way up.
That period had been the peak of his life, though he had not realized it then. It had gone by without time for reflection, ending while he was still thinking things were going to get better. He had not realized the ability and local fame he had then was all he was going to have.
But as he tried to advance his career he found he wasn’t up to it and he began to lose bouts and then his wife. The quote continues…
Nor had his manager realized it when he moved him up to opponents of national importance. That knowledge had been mercilessly pounded into Tully in a half dozen bouts as he swung and missed and staggered, eyes closed to slits. Then he had looked to his wife for some indefinable endorsement, some solicitous comprehension of the pain and sacrifice he felt he endured for her sake, some always withheld recognition of the rites of virilty. Waiting, he drank.
When Ernie goes to the Lido Gym Ruben Luna, Tully’s old manager, is impressed with him and believes he shows promise and manages to get a bout arranged for him. Ernie starts going out with Faye Murdock and when she becomes pregnant they marry. Tully, meanwhile, is moving from hotel to hotel when he either can’t pay or just feels like moving on. He works as a fruit picker, carries on drinking heavily and training at the gym. Getting to the hotel one night at midnight with the intention of getting up at four in the morning to go to work he broods:
And was this where he was going to grow old? Would it all end in a room like this?[…]Then the abeyant melancholy of the evening came over him. He sat with his shoulders slumped under the oppression of the room, under the impasse that was himself, the utter, hopeless thwarting that was his blood and bones and flesh. Afraid of a crisis beyond his capacity, he held himself in, his body absolutely still in the passing and fading whine and rumble of a truck.
Despite the quotes used it isn’t unremittently bleak or depressing. The characters are all expertly drawn by Gardner. When Tully shacks up with Oma we can tell that they’re just going to be with each other for a short while; Oma only needs Tully whilst Earl is in prison and Tully only needs Oma to bolster his spirits for a while and besides it’s cheaper renting together. Gardner handles the fight scenes excellently; I was glad he didn’t spend too much time on the details and that he avoided making it dramatic, instead the boxing matches are quite mundane in a way. I won’t reveal much more about the story but a match is arranged for Tully, one he should win and needs to win. The novel ends rather abruptly, leaving us to wonder what would happen to both Tully and Ernie, but the ending works well as we’ve just caught sight of one character near the end of his career and another at the beginning of his. We have the sense though that Ernie’s life will be similar to Tully’s.
Although I read the Pushkin Press version I don’t particularly like the cover as it seems to imply that it’s a tale of childhood, something similar to the film Cinema Paradiso, which it isn’t, it’s more along the lines of a Charles Bukowski story. I much prefer the NYRB cover with its photograph of a grim urban street with the kind of gym that I envisaged when reading the book.