“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.” This is the opening to “Fat City,” Leonard Gardner’s only novel, published in 1969 and set in Stockton, California a decade earlier. It’s a sweltering summer in inland California. The he is Billy Tully, a former pro boxer now pushing thirty, his best years behind him. Billy Tully lives with regret, over a boxing career that didn’t live up to expectations and over a wife who left him. For money, which he usually spends on whiskey and beer, Tully sometimes gets up at dawn to put in a day’s work as a farm labourer – an onion-sacker or tomato-thinner. “Of all the hated work he had ever done, this was a torment beyond any” is how Gardner describes Tully’s long, backbreaking day tomato-thinning in the blistering heat of mid-summer.
Tully is the most pitiful of the three main characters depicted in the novel. His body, once his livelihood, wears the scars of his short-lived career. He’s reminiscent of Brando’s Terry Malloy from “On the Waterfront,” whose indelible “I coulda been a contender” line perfectly captures the pain of missed opportunities, of a life gone awry. Like Malloy, Tully can also trace his downfall to the outcome of a single bout. The two other main characters are Ernie Munger and Ruben Luna. Ernie Munger is a young up-and-comer who works the night shift at a gas station. Ruben Luna is a forklift operator and former pro boxer turned trainer. He once trained Tully, and he takes Munger under his wing because he sees potential in him.
But Luna, the character most advanced in years, isn’t naive about the lie of potential: “[H]is fighters were less dependable. Some trained one day and laid off two, fought once and quit, lost their timing, came back, struggled into condition, gasped and missed and were beaten, or won several bouts and got married, or moved, or were drafted, joined the navy or went to jail, were bleeders, suffered headaches, saw double or broke their hands. There had been so many who found they were not fighters at all, and there were others who without explanation had simply ceased to appear at the gym and were never seen or heard about again by Ruben.”
I keep returning to “Fat City” for the unaffected and graceful quality of the prose. There is poetry in the language as well, which consistently uplifts the desolateness of the narrative. The book is so tightly and carefully crafted – a beautiful distillation of a specific American experience. American writers convinced their great novel must be an opus should take a cue from “Fat City,” which manages to universalize its characters’ struggles in less than 200 pages.
“Fat City” is often called a boxing novel, but Gardner writes about the fraught relationships between men and women as expertly as he writes about the sport. Ernie Munger’s courtship of a young woman named Faye Murdock is among the strongest and most poignant parts of the novel. Gardner captures the confused mind – a mess of fears and desires – of a young man stepping precariously toward commitment. Fearing a loss of independence as much as he fears losing his claim to his woman, Ernie Munger proceeds like a man newly blind. In contrast, Faye Murdock, it’s suggested, knows exactly what she wants.
A note about the title: here’s a quote from Gardner taken from the novel’s wikipedia entry (where I also got the photo of the vintage paperback design): “Lots of people have asked me about the title of my book. It’s part of Negro slang. When you say you want to go to Fat City, it means you want the good life. I got the idea for the title after seeing a photograph of a tenement in an exhibit in San Francisco. ‘Fat City’ was scrawled in chalk on a wall. The title is ironic: Fat City is a crazy goal no one is ever going to reach.” Here’s a link to a short piece about the novel, written by Denis Johnson, which is how I first heard about it.