Leonard Gardner’s Fat City

For a boxing novel, there is conspicuously little fighting in Fat City; the brutality is provided by Leonard Gardner’s expert descriptions of Stockton, California, a dilapidated industrial city, and the lives of the men and women surviving there in the late 1950s. Two men, in particular, draw our attention: Billy Tully, a retired semi-professional boxer, who, approaching 30 and with no other way of making a living than picking crops in the sweltering California heat, contemplates a return to the ring; and Ernie Munger, a young and ambitious man whom Tully encourages in his dream of becoming a professional boxer. Gardner doesn’t so much suggest their similarities as hammer us over the head with them: Tully – divorced, perpetually drunk, and without prospects – represents a possible future for Munger, and Munger, in his turn, embodies all the potential inherent in Tully’s youth. Despite their ambitions, neither man seems likely to advance very far in the world, revealing the irony of Gardner’s title: in the street slang of the day, a “fat city” refers to a state of ease or plenty.

We open with a glimpse into the life of Billy Tully, who has “lived in five hotels in the year and a half since his wife had left him.” He works as a fry cook, but what money doesn’t go to hotel fees serves merely to keep him drunk, and on this particular morning, to work off his hangover, he heads to the local gym, where he spars with the younger Ernie Munger. Munger, an amateur with no fighting experience whatsoever, beats him with ease, which causes Tully to suggest that Munger has innate talent, and should pursue boxing. Already Gardner is presenting us with a painful example of false hope, for shortly after this meeting, Tully recognizes what he has done:

[…] he knew he had magnified Ernie Munger’s talents. He had done it in order to go on believing in his body, but he lost his reflexes – that was all there was to it – and he felt like his life was coming to a close. At one time he had believed the nineteen-fifties would bring him greatness. Now they were almost at an end and he was through.

What does it mean to be “through” and still in your 20s? For Billy Tully, it means his wife has run out on him, his life’s ambition has amounted to nothing, and the only comfort comes from a bottle. Gardner makes us feel the weight of Tully’s pessimism, in this description of his field labour under the scorching California sun:

Tully was falling asleep while he finished eating, but already the men were hobbling out of the bus and taking up their hoes. Following, he found himself off with the Negroes at one end of the field. Bloated, aching, he again bent over a row. Shuffling sideways, his legs crossing and uncrossing, the short hoe rising and falling, he labored on in the despondency of one condemned, the instrument of torture held in his own hand. Of all the hated work he had ever done, this was a torment beyond any, almost beyond belief, and so it began to seem this was his future, that this was Work, which he had always tried to evade and would never escape now that his wife was gone and his career was over. And it was as if it were just, as if he deserved no better for the mess he made of his life.

These sections of the narrative are interlaced with Ernie Munger’s desperate attempts to lose his virginity – that most archetypal adolescent male rite of passage – to reinforce the comparison between the two men. When Ernie Munger’s best sexual advances are frustrated, he resorts to that oldest of male mistakes, confusing lust with love, and his fate is sealed:

There was a silence so heady that he began to tremble. “I guess I’m in love,” he answered, and slumped lower in fear of what he had said. Had he committed himself for nothing, or had he only said the one thing he should have said all along?

His gambit pays off, but it results in more than he bargained for: a child, and therefore marriage – neither of which he is prepared for. Tully, too, takes up with a woman he does not truly love, Oma Lee Greer, preferring to share his bed with someone – anyone – than be left alone to grieve his wife:

On nights when Tully could not bear to hold Oma at all, after hours of bickering had made her so repulsive to him that he shrank from touching her, his desire for his wife was acute. Writhing in the darkness, he pined finally for any woman, other than the one beside him. On other, easier nights, he enjoyed her with indifferent flamboyant vigor. But afterwards he experienced none of the affectionate gratitude he had felt for Lynn. He lay quietly, oppressed by a sense of dwindling life, of his youth dwindling away as he rested beside a woman he should never have known, here so far off the course he knew should have been his that he wondered with panic if it had been lost forever. He could feel no love, and the anguish of a life without it was greater now than when he had lived alone.

The pattern is a familiar one: having fallen into despair, Tully looks for any relief from that sadness, but those available to him only leave him more lost, and with greater self-loathing.

Joan Didion, whose childhood in Sacramento brought her to many of the places described in this book, praised Fat City for the exactness of its evocation of Stockton, California, and the blighted lives of its inhabitants. Left behind by the rest of the country, with a stagnant economy and a decaying social center, Stockton became, in Didion’s words, “a metaphor for the joyless in heart.” Surveying his stable of young and old athletes, Tully’s boxing coach Ruben Luna offers, unintentionally, perhaps the most poignant description of the city’s inhabitants: “They were all so vulnerable, their duration so desperately brief, that all he could do was go on from one to another in quest of that youth who had all that the others lacked. There was always someone who wanted to fight.” The truth, as Gardner reveals it, is much bleaker: there is no alternative to the fight.