on February 1, 2002
Billy Tully and Ernie Munger are two young men living in the Northern California delta town of Stockton. Their world is the violent one of boxing, but their struggles for survival are more universal than just any conventional story about men battling professionally in the squared circle. You do not have to be a fight fan to appreciate this arresting work.
Leonard Gardner has followed the rule of thumb laid down years ago of "Write what you know." Gardner grew up in Stockton and knows the lower middle class world he describes with graphic brilliance. He was an amateur boxer, giving him a knowledge of how men struggle to survive in that competitive and highly dangerous world.
Gardner's story craft is straight out of Albert Camus, in many ways reminiscent of his epic novella, "The Stranger." His descriptions of dingy bars and dreary hotel rooms ring with clarity, transferring readers to a world of existential survival where some cling to hope while others have long since given up.
Tully was on the verge of being a contender but lost a major fight, hit the bottle, and quit boxing. He got a job as a short order cook. After going to the local high school gym to work out he meets Ernie Munger. At 18 Ernie is eleven years Tully's senior. He becomes so impressed by Munger's moves that he recommends that he visit Lido Gym and look up his former manager. When Munger begins boxing amateur Tully's interest increases and he is motivated to launch a comeback.
Tully and Munger seek extra money by working as field pickers under a broiling sun. Tully finds temporary romance with Oma, a woman he meets in a bar with such a propensity for alcohol that he moves out of her dingy hotel room and back to his own, warned by his manager that she will destroy his concentration as he prepares for a main event bout in Stockton. Meanwhile Munger impregnates a young local woman, marries her, and with additional incentive, turns professional.
Gardner wrote the screenplay for the electrifying film version directed by John Huston, which starred Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and Susan Tyrell. It matches the tenaciously gripping, Camus-like existential reality of the book.
Leonard Gardner's short novel, "Fat City", set in Stockton, California in the mid-1950's, appeared in 1969. Gardner wrote the screenplay for the movie, directed by John Huston, in 1972. The book remains in print in a series of novels based in California called "California fiction". I came upon this book by chance. It is little-known but a treasure.
The book is about boxing and low life, faded dreams, lack of prospects, booze, rooming houses, failed relationships in a small California town. The two primary characters are Billy Tully and Ernie Munger. Billy at age 29 is a washed-up fighter who has lost his wife and several jobs and is sinking deeply into alcohol and oblivion. Ernie is 19 years old and a boxer who may have potential. He marries a young women named Faye, after getting her pregnant, and takes up the ring as a professional in order to support his wife and child.
The paths of the two men cross in the gym at the beginning of the book and their careers take parallel courses. Billy had lost an important fight in Panama some years earlier when his manager, Ruben Luna, forced him to travel alone to Panama in order to save on expenses. He makes an attempted comeback at the age of 30 and actually wins a decision in a brutal match with an aging Mexican fighter. He returns to fighting to try to save himself from depression over the loss of his wife, his lack of prospects, and his loneliness.
Ernie Munger is young and works at a gas station. Although he has some boxing potential, his skills appear limited. As had been the case with Tully years earlier, Ruben Luna sends Munger out of town, (to Las Vegas) for a fight to save on the expenses. This is Munger's first professional fight which proves more successful for him than did Tully's fight in Panama.
The book ends darkly, but with a hint of the possiblity of personal growth and true independence for Munger.
The descriptions in this book of bars, of women, of cheap hotels, of the training for fights, and of the fights themselves is compelling. This is a strong picture of boxing at its seamiest which yet captures the fascination that this sport holds for many -- myself included.
There are also many scenes in the book of the life of seasonal, agricultural workers in northern California. One of the most memorable portions of the book occurs when Tully and Munger sign on for day work in picking nuts. Tully climbs upon a ladder on a tractor and beats the nuts from a tree with a stick where they fall on Munger's head as he gathers them into a bag. The rage and the frustration of both men is palpable.
Gardner writes with a spare understated style which does not moralize. The characters and their experiences speak for themselves. It is highly effective.
There is a picture here of despairing men with small visions but also a real sense of underlying humanity, of hope, and of valuable, if fallen ideals. This will be a rewarding novel for the reader who wants to go slightly off the routine path.
on January 8, 2000
It really is. I have read, I'd guess, 250-300 novels by contemporary writers since I read a glowing review of FAT CITY in a San Francisco newspaper years ago, sometime in the early 1970s, and bought the novel, mainly because I was brought up in San Jose, California, and wondered what could a writer find in the humble tank town of Stockton to write about. When I finished reading it I just looked out the window, so moved was I by the characters in the novel, and by Gardner's storytelling prowess. And to this day -- going on 28 years later -- I swear that I have not read a contemporary novel that has affected me as profoundly as FAT CITY did, and still does whenever I reread it, which is every year or two. Gardner's craft is wonderful to read -- the cadences of his sentences are gorgeous; you find yourself wanting to read it out loud to yourself, just to relish the drum beat of the syllables. (The only other writer I can think of who constructed sentences that way in English is Joseph Conrad.) Gardner's understanding of his characters, and of human nature, makes you shake your head and smile, even as his characters are blindly reeling toward sad destinies. This is American literature of the finest kind -- and though Gardner has not published a novel since FAT CITY in 1969, I know that a whole lot of people hope that he will again. He has the gift and this novel is proof.
on May 30, 2005
Short novel, published in 1969, about two boxers, Billy Tully, who is 29 and down and out, and Ernie Mugger, who is 18 and up and coming, two versions of the same man, in some respects. Terrific skilled prose, short chapters, switching points of view between these two main characters and an assortment of other minor characters. The author takes you inside the characters' deepest despair or elation. How simple the author makes it look, one thinks, reading this book. But of course it is not. The prose is precise and honed, and looks easy only after who knows how many drafts. There are only 18 or 19 short chapters, and much of the novel is dialogue. But somehow one comes away with a panoramic view of Stockton, California, this woeful place, and the people the inhabit it - the immigrant fruit pickers, the bartenders and bar girls, the hobos on the street. The descriptions are compact and dead-on. About Billy Tully's hotel room: "All his neighbors had lung trouble." One could quote sentences from this book almost at will, the prose is so spare and perfect.
That the author never published another book, and that this was his first, is incredible. To write this cleanly and confidently, he must have practiced and studied for years. Yet to never do it again.
"In the midst of a phantasmagoria of worn-out, mangled faces, scarred cheeks and necks, twisted, pocked, crushed and bloated noses, missing teeth, brown snags, empty gums, stubble beards, pitcher lips, flop ears, sores, scabs, dribbled tobacco juice, stooped shoulders, split brows, weary, desperate, stupefied eyes under the lights of Center Street, Tully saw a familiar young man with a broken nose." So goes life in Stockton, California in a spare and brilliantly written tale of woe. Gardner has created a genuinely disturbing tale which universalizes the down-and-out experience. It's strongly reminiscent John Williams ("Stoner") and of the "romans durs" of Georges Simenon (also reprinted by NY Books). These authors are transcendent experts in creating genuine psychological terror without the horror-story overtones and worn out memes. "Fat City" is fiction at its finest.
This isn't a novel of redemption. It's the story of two sometime amateur boxers, Bill Tully and Ernie Munger with a taste for booze and losers. Both have that certain "appetite for destruction" and that tendency is made a whole lot worse for both of them thanks to occasional lucid insights into the desperate, imbecile trajectory of their lives. Despite occasionally grasping the fact that - at best - they are headed nowhere (and, at worst, to an early and ugly demise), they can't and won't change. In part due to this and amplified by remarkable descriptions of the wretched city of Stockton, a dreary and oppressive sense of melancholy pervades the book. Returning after yet another of many wasted nights of drinking, Tully remarks on the wallpaper in his flophouse: "At midnight he negotiated the stairs to his room, its walls covered with floral paper faded to the hues of old wedding bouquets." He wonders, "And was this where he was going to grow old? Would it all end in a room like this?" Not only does he realize that this is the probable outcome, he seems to be determined to fulfill that destiny. Munger blunders into a losing marriage and a family he can't support.
When George Orwell wrote, "He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it" he could have very well been describing how Tully and Munger recognize the full dimensions of their destinies, yet due whatever they can to ensure they achieve a perfect fit. These aren't heroes following fate, they are just losers. Tully is a barfly and he wants it that way. Munger is second-rater and takes every step to lock himself into that fate.. and they are equally and painfully aware of the implications of their decisions. This is crux point of the novel and it's devastatingly delivered. Next time you're passing by a modern Tully or Munger think about this book or Bob Dylan's lyric: "And nobody has to think too much/About Desolation Row
on February 18, 2016
This book is one of a series "California Fiction". I was sitting in an RV in Palm Desert when I finished this captivating and absorbing tale of the Northern California boxing world of the 1950's. Let me warn you: if you like your stories told in a way that makes you feel good about the world, stories that provoke wonderment about the Golden State, stories where love conquers all and the good guy gets the girl and the bad characters get theirs in the end...then look somewhere else for a good book. This is a narrative told in a raw (but not vulgar or obscene way) language. The characters, Billy Tully, Ruben, Ernie Munger and a woman named Oma, drift in and out of each others lives. This is a world, around Stockton, of small-time boxers trying to make it big...or at least get their wives back. When they aren't getting the crap beaten out of them in a cheesy dumpy ring somewhere, they pick fruit alongside the migrant workers for a few cents a day. When they're not trying to get into some kind of shape for the next fight, you may find them in a dive bar, drinking a dusty beer or a cheap wine.
This is a story of losers, boozers, whores and fighters. It is noir with the sun beating down on your scarred back. It's about depression, failed hopes, elusive dreams and crazy two-timing women and cheating men.
One wonders if this world still exists out there somewhere...if characters like these live in places like Palm Springs or Rancho Mirage, they're out behind the walls of the country clubs and over-watered golf courses.
This book is not for the gentle reader unless that reader fully appreciates first-rate fiction writing.
on January 8, 1999
I first read Fat City in 1970, not long after publication, and again recently(a first edition, no less!)and this brilliant novel only gets better with time. This is the novel Hemingway was never able to manage after The Sun Also Rises. Only on the surface is it about boxing.The novel foreshadows the work of Raymond Carver and Russell Banks, but is much more powerful and beautiful. Certainly Gardner is an enigma (no second novel) but like that other "one-timer," Harper Lee, he has produced nothing but perfection, a lesson more novelists should learn.
on January 5, 2000
Like a boxer who has complete confidence in every move he makes, Gardner constructed a novel about small-city life that never takes a wrong step or strikes a false note. The setting is the northern California town of Stockton; the subject is the ordinary men and women operating on the fringes of society: living, working and drinking hard, they face a life of limited opportunity, yet somehow they persist, refusing to be defeated by the many obstacles they face.
The main characters are boxers: Billy, who at 29 is all but washed up, decides to try it in the ring one more time. Ernie, young and confident, enjoys limited success, but it's clear his future in the ring is limited at best. Between bouts they take day laborer jobs in the fields and orchards that support the Stockton community. The scenes that describe the work in the fields and the bus trips to small-time fights are beautifully drawn in spare, unsentimental prose of the highest order.
This novel is a classic of American realism. Gardner catches with uncanny clarity the drudgery of the work required to keep our land of plenty churning out the goods that we expect and take for granted. Its general tone is bleak, yet that tone is leavened with a deadpan humor and -- most importantly -- a genuine respect for his characters.
It's unfortunate for us as readers that Gardner didn't write more. On the other hand, he accomplished much with this work, and I believe that we can find his influence in contemporary writers such as Thom Jones and Elwood Reid.
on August 20, 2013
While I enjoyed this book quite a bit, and it was not at all laborious to get through, it wasn't what I'd been led to expect by the notes on the cover or the reviews I'd read. The episodic tales of the characters and their travails were good enough. And Gardner does succeed in de-glamorizing the life of the journeyman boxer. But the episodes didn't hang together novelistically, nor were the characters developed fully enough to engage my caring about them.
Fat City is a good quick read. A classic? Not so much.
on December 5, 2012
This is one of the best boxing novels ever written. Its an excellent book about a couple of down and out boxers in Stockton, California in the 1950s. The author's gritty realism and gloomy since of place are evident on every page and the various characters who live from day to day with little hope too often rings true. Gardner's details of bars, flophouses, migrant workers and men who keep returning, even with little success, to the one thing they know how to do--fight makes FAT CITY a memorable reading experience. Having written some about sports in the fifties (HOOP CRAZY:COLLEGE BASKETBALL IN THE 1950S) I found this not only a wonderful sports novel but an outstanding literary achievement.