Add Fat City by Leonard Gardner to the list of great anti-California novels.
That’s a new sub-genre I’m creating. The anti-California novel looks at the great California dream’s underbelly. What happened to all those people who came to California and didn’t strike it rich, but stayed here anyway? Think Nathenial West’s The Day of the Locust, Charles Bukowski’s Ham and Rye, John Fante’s Ask the Dust. There’s a rich body of literature about those who kept chasing the dream of the Golden State long after it became clear they would never catch it.
They make for very good reading.
Mr. Gardner’s novel Fat City is set in the boxing world of Stockton, California circa 1940-1950. While the novel was written in the 1960’s, it feels like a previous generation. This is no summer of love.
Fat CIty features two main characters, a young boxer with something of a future in the sport to look forward to named Ernie Munger and an ex-boxer named Billy Tully who tries one more time to make it. The two are linked by a sparring match arranged by their manager Ruben Luna.
Everyone in Fat City is living on the edge–just one side or the other of desperation. Tully’s trajectory is downward, Munger’s might be upward, Luna just keeps trying to find that one boxer who will stay with it long enough to make it big.
The three main characters and the supporting cast are more than interesting enough to pull the reader through the novel. Luna, the manager, emerges as the most sympathetic. He appears shady to the men he works with, but he is the one keeping them going financially as long as he can. The two boxers are both sympathetic and unsympathetic. The seem like decent people heart, but the strain of their work and their world, along with the extreme poverty both face take them to dark places and actions that will surely lose some readers along the way.
But it was the setting and the way Leonard Gardner uses it that made Fat City my new favorite novel. Stockton, California is hardly the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of boxing. Even in its hay-day, the boxing scene in Stockton can’t possibly have amounted to much. This accents the overall sense of desperation in Fat City. Every one of the three main characters is struggling for a payday that anyone else would have found meager. Tully wins his big comeback fight, earning a purse worth just over 300 dollars. These are the small time boxing matches you see advertised in posters hung in bars and taquerias.
The section of the novel that moved me most, featured Tully taking day labor jobs on various farms around Stockton where he could earn as much as 90 cents an hours weeding tomato plants with a short handled hoe, the kind of work called back-breaking for a reason. The descriptions of how Tully finds this work, the toll it takes on his body, and how difficult it is to survive on the money he makes each day as he hopes for his chance to get one more good fight all ring so true that I’m convinced Mr. Gardner must have spent more than a little time working in the fields himself. (He’s now very successful in television,)
I’m going to spoil the ending here, not really. I don’t think the ending needs to come as a surprise to enjoy Fat City, but fair is fair. I want to talk about it, so I’m going to talk about it. Be warned.
Edie Munger is the young boxer who still has a chance to make it. After he wins his first fight, Luna gets him another match up in Salt Lake. Because he does not have enough money to go along, he sends Munger to the match alone. After winning the match, he decides to hitch-hike home to save money on bus fare. There’s a strange sequence with two women who pick him up only to leave him on the side of the road in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night. After a difficult night, he arrives back at the Stockton bus station.
It’s an odd arrival scene, the winner home from his victorious battle. He walks into the bus station waiting room, like he’s walking up to receive his prize, his Oscar. But the audience is made up of “unkempt sleepers slumped upright on the benches.” The end. The prize is no prize, just another day.
The introduction to the NYRB edition is written by Denis Johnson, author of one of my recent “New Favorite Books.” He loved Fat City even more than I did, memorized parts of it in his youth, in fact. I’m not going to be memorizing passages from Fat City, but I will be keeping my copy to on my to be re-read in retirement shelf.
With the rest of my new favorite books.