Leonard GARDNER,Fat City. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969.
Fat City, Gardner’s first (and only) novel, was greeted with great enthusiasm when it was published, and his essay on the fight between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980 is regarded as a classic (“Sweeter than Sugar” is included in
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, ed. George Kimball and John Schulian). About Fat City Ross Macdonald wrote, “I have seldom read a novel as beautiful and individual as this one.” Walker Percy’s praise was more modest: he described the novel as “a solid good job.” Gardner's knowledge of boxing shines in his novel.
Fat City is tells the story of two boxers, Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, who believe that boxing is the route to a better life. They spar at the beginning of the book, after which point their lives follow separate paths. This is a book about men of modest boxing talent steered by a well-meaning but self-serving trainer who is not above exposing them to fighters with far superior talents.
The boxers’ expectations rest on the illusion that even modest boxing ability will lead to financial and professional success.
A boxing novel stands or falls on its account of boxing, not on its version of the world of boxing, the poverty, the managers, the gyms, and other elements that make boxing what it is. When it comes to action in the ring, Fat City skims the surface. The inner workings of fights are not explored; rounds are painted in broad terms.
However, the book draws considerable power from its account of two worlds outside the ring: married life, invariably desperate and impoverished; and California’s cultures of migrant labor. Both Tully and Munger are forced to work as day laborers who pick fruit and vegetables in miserable conditions that emphasize the economic and social traps they have fallen into. Gardner does not have a light touch. Here’s a memorable scene that brings the boxers together for the first time after they spar (this is from the start of chapter 17).
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. His first impulse was to move away through the crowd to avoid being seen, but they had both come here for the same reason. He approached him, calling, and even the name came to him. "Hey, Ernie." The other looked around blankly. "How's it going? You making the day hauls now?"
Ernie stood with his hands in his pockets. "Shit, man. Wife's pregnant, I get up in the middle of the night two times now and come down to pick up a few extra bucks and run into a mob like this" (p. 116).
That’s 20 descriptive terms, all striking the same note, before we get to Ernie’s broken nose.
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