Leonard Gardner started writing what would become his only novel to date (Gardner is still alive though in his 80s), Fat City (1969), in the mid 1960s while attending graduate school at San Francisco State. He worked on it for four years, stripping it down, polishing it with grit. To supreme results: Fat City was deservedly nominated for the National Book Award, along with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-five and Joyce Carol Oates’ Them (which won) and was made into a classic film by John Huston. And while Gardner has received acclaim for his journalism and for his writing for the television series NYPD Blue, it seems likely to me that his standing achievement, one being honored today with a reissue by NYRB Classics, will be this slim boxing novel.

Fat City

Gardner was born in Stockton, California, in 1933. As he grew up, he learned boxing from his father, became an amateur boxer in Stockton, and went on to report on some famous bouts, like Foreman-Norton in Caracas for Esquire and Ali-Chuvalo in Vancouver for Sport. He knows well the amount of hard work that goes into a preparing for just a few rounds in the ring, at which time you’d better prove yourself or move on. Either way, you’ll probably get pummeled.

Fat City itself is set primarily in Stockton, California, some time in the 1950s. In its pages men come to the gym to get in shape, feeding each other stories of success, living on each others’ dreams. All this though nothing in their past suggests the pathway they’re following will lead them anywhere like the places they’ve imagined. The book’s opening lines call forth the dissipation of other dreams:

He lived in the Hotel Coma — named perhaps for some founder of the town, some California explorer or pioneer, or for some long-deceased Italian immigrant who founded only the hotel itself. Whoever it commemorated, the hotel was a poor monument, and Billy Tully had no intention of staying on.

Here we sit, then, in a dilapidated building bearing the name of someone no one remembers, and we get the sense of a dream’s decay. And we sit with a man named Billy Tully, who was once a promising boxer who is now twenty-nine and out of shape. He now wanders from hotel to hotel, looking for nothing in particular other than to forget, mostly through drinking, how his life tumbled and led to his devastating divorce.

One day, Billy wanders to the gym again and spars with a young man named Ernie Munger. Ernie beats him, but this is a loss that doesn’t feel like defeat. Billy is genuinely impressed by Ernie’s raw talent and suggests he talk to Ruben Luna, his old trainer. That’s just what Ernie does, and though Ernie and Billy rarely meet again, each are inspired by this initial meeting, Ernie to fight, Billy to get back in shape and maybe get his life on track. We check in on each of them, and get glimpses at other boxers who orbit the gym, throughout the novel where hope is indistinguishable from delusion. It’s powerful, and in its way it’s beautiful.

Part of the beauty comes from Gardner’s impeccable prose. It’s gritty and stripped down, just as he intended, and yet it’s sublime, for in the blunt and the rough there Gardner elicits a soul. Here, for example, he looks at one of the side characters, Wes Haynes, who has just returned home after realizing he is a failure. He’s in the pit — “Now he felt he should have known all along that he was nothing.”

Resting his cheek against the cold window, he thought of killing himself, but years ago, standing bedside his father’s legs in a crowd on a night sidewalk, he had seen a dead man profiled in a puddle of blood, his eye dumbfounded, and Wes knew that if he was going to be killed he was not going to do it himself. They would have to come and get him and he would club them and chock them and shoot them and then he would run.

That’s not to suggest that running makes it better, or that the life that he is running to will be one he wants.

The NYRB Classics edition comes with a brief introduction by Denis Johnson. Johnson wrote this “appreciation” nearly twenty years ago, not long after he published his own beautifully brutal book of stories, Jesus’ Son (my post here). Johnson talks about how much he was influenced by the book, indeed, influenced so much he “swore it off.” He does say, at the end, that “10 years’ exile hadn’t saved me from the influence of its perfection — I’d taught myself to write in Gardner’s style, though not as well. And now, many years later, it’s still true: Leonard Gardner has something to say in every word I write.”

I can see what Johnson means. Fat City is slim, and yet it is consuming and expresses feelings that most would find inexpressible. A definite contender for my year-end “best reads of 2015” list, I recommend you seek it out, or, if you’ve banished it from your home, let it come back.

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