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Fat City (California Fiction) Paperback – October 6, 1996
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From Library Journal
LJ's reviewer found this "sordid saga of cheap hotels, cheap women, cheap dreams, and little or no fulfillment" to be "expertly written" (LJ 9/1/69). The plot finds palooka Billy Tully teaming up with a young would-be fighter who is destined to follow in Tully's footsteps.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"Although the fight scenes are blood-curdlingly real enough, the tale is not about boxing: it is about desperate men doing the only thing they can do fighting at once to stay alive and to die. . . . Gardner's careful characterizing eye gleans apt images to build the stark reality of human beings on the aimless loose." -- Keith S. Felton, Los Angeles Times
"Gardner has laid claim to a locale that others have explored, but seldom with such accuracy and control . . . in a tone that is both detached and lyrical." -- New York Times Book Review
Top customer reviews
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
The descriptions, ambience and prose of Fat City were definitely reminiscent of John Steinbeck. I enjoyed the backdrop of Stockton, California as the setting for the plot, and I think it is very fitting as the story evolves. Fat City is sort of a series of scenes, vignettes or episodes of the two focal characters, Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, two boxers at different points in their career. Gardner’s book has a definitive rawness to its entirety, a sense of bleakness and alienation as those principle characters struggle to come to terms with their lives.
Ultimately, though, I felt like the two key characters could have been developed more, and this was due in part to the weak dialogue between characters and just the overall lack of depth of these characters. I felt like much of the characters’ inner conflicts consisted of them just bickering, complaining and yelling at other characters for a good deal of the book. This didn’t really add anything to the story or plot. Yes, Billy Tully and Ernie Munger are representative of the “down and out” boxers trying to make it in the world, maybe chase down the American Dream, and Gardner does portray this accurately. However, these two characters never arc, mainly just remain static and “down and out”, never moving above it with much effort to make the reader really care or become invested in their fates. As a result, it is really hard to identify or sympathize with them at all for a majority of the narrative.
Over all, Fat City is a bit lackluster at points, but the grittiness does ring true.
One of the two men also appears to be clinging to the lower rungs of society, moving from hotel room to hotel room and battling his demons. The free indirect speech of Billy Tully takes us through his life of missed opportunities and failures. His flirtation with self-awareness corresponds with the transient life he is leading, and must be familiar to most, even if the desperation may not be. The thing here is that Gardner gives voice to the invisible and the voiceless, in that sense placing Fat City in the Steinbeck tradition of social criticism.
The details are perhaps dated, appearing from the modern day closer to the Depression than to the ostensible post-war prosperity these characters are clearly missing. But the missing out can't be dated. Some people must be forever living that tenuous life of striving and never coming close, and this novel absolutely nails it.