Friday, November 7, 2008

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

Fat City by Leonard Gardner
HB ed., Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright 1969

Fat City is a California noir story about the torpid lives of two despairing boxers, one old and one young. One day their bleak paths cross in a gym and from then on we are taken into a world of destitute souls, broken romance, and faded dreams. Set in the seedy part of 1950s Stockton, Gardner uses the backdrop of small-time local boxing to intensify the stark mood of this distressing tale.

"His life, he felt, had turned against him. He was convinced every day of it had been mislived. His attention dulled, his ears humming, a sense of emptiness and panic hovering about him, he feared he was losing his mind. Catastrophes seemed to whisper just beyond hearing."

Billy Tully is the older washed up boxer, who has been lagging out a living as a field picker or a short order cook; anything to get a couple of bucks to pay for his flophouse and a bottle. His best days have past, and he faces a long future of grim disconsolation. Thinking he still has some gas in the tank, he attempts a return to the ring and chase an unreachable illusion. He meets 18 year old Ernie Munger and encourages the boy towards local boxing. Ernie has some talent, but not enough to get him out of the entrapped life he will forever live in Stockton.

This novel is much more than a palooka boxing story. It's a haunting portrayal of people who seem content embracing an existence of little hope, and find comfort living in despair and lack of personal drive. Leonard Gardner delivers it through the depressed atmosphere of the harsh streets of Stockton, with all of its cast of characters eroding in a world they composed of their own failures. Fleabag hotels, crooked managers, stale smelling taverns, drunken lush women that live in turnstile bedrooms, and yet Gardner teases us into thinking that a glimmer of hope can spark, especially for young Ernie. But escape is too difficult and failure continues to be the word in everyone's destiny.

Leonard Gardner wrote numerous short shorts and screenplays, but "Fat City" is his only novel. When first published, it received wide acclaim and caught the interest of director John Huston. (who directed the 1972 film) But now this novel seems forgotten, and that is a shame. Few better than this capture the honest depiction of cheap uncaring lives -with its pains of past glory, hopelessness, and utter loneliness.


Gonzalo B said...

This is probably one of my favorite novels. You mention that Gardner wrote other short stories. I only know of one that was published in the Paris Review and later made into a movie. Do you know of any others?

August West said...

Gonzalo, good question: His most widely know short work was "Jesus Christ Has Returned to Earth and Appears Here Nightly" and I heard there is a article called "Stopover in Caracas." Also a story called "The Tomato Field" was published for a short story collection about California, though I believe that story was taken out of "Fat City."

There has to be more...

David Cranmer said...

I went through a John Huston phase where I watched all his films, including Fat City, and I thought it was a masterpiece. I think the film may be somewhat forgotten as well these days. I'm also interested in your mention of Gardner's short stories. I'd love to pick up a collection, if there is one, since that’s my niche.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

I too only know this stuff from the John Huston movie. I'll have to look out for this.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Love the movie-didn't even know about the book.