“Ernie pushed his hands into the heavy gloves held braced for him by the wrists. He stepped into a leather foulproof cup. A headguard was jerked over his brows. Padded and trussed, his face smeared with Vaseline, a rubber mouthpiece between his teeth, he stood waiting while two squat men punched and grappled in the ring. Then he was following his opponent’s dark legs up the steps. For two rounds he punched, bounded and was hit in return, the headguard dropping over his eyes and the cup sagging between his legs . . .”
From FAT CITY by Leonard Gardner
It was mid-September, the end of a long heat wave. That kind of heat, this time of year, came from the interior: a gathering mass over the Central Valley pushing west, stifling the ocean breeze, so even San Francisco sweltered. This had changed in the last few hours. The wind shifted. It was cooler. Even so, you could still smell the heat in the Chinatown alleys, and it was still warm inside the buildings, particularly in the reading room upstairs at City Lights Bookstore. A crowd gathered in the small room. They filled the seats. They leaned against the walls, against the railing at the back, against each other. Those who could not fit into the room sat on the landing, on the wooden staircase that led back down to the first floor.
I was one of these latter. I had arrived late and sat on the bottom step.
Leonard Gardner, the author of Fat City, would be in conversation that evening with Eddie Muller, a novelist and film historian. Fat City, originally published in 1969, had just been re-released by NYRB Classics: a publisher who has made a habit lately of reviving American classics in a distinctly desolate vein, including Nightmare Alley (1946), the geek show novel by William Lindsay Gresham, and Don Carpenter’s hard-edged Hard Rain Falling (1966).
Fat City is a boxing novel. That’s the usual tag, but as Denis Johnson writes in the introduction to the latest edition, the two main characters exist, “far outside the boxing myth . . . deep in the sorrow and beauty of human life.”
The story takes place in Stockton, California, in the late ‘50’s, out in the flatlands of the Central Valley, at the east end of the great delta: a town of modest, low slung, wood frame buildings, sloughs and fields, a working class place with a stunted skyline, a warehouse district edged by canneries and old hotels.
I should pause here.
I am not an objective witness or reliable reporter. I don’t pretend to be that. I am not objective about anything, let alone the way I feel about particular writers or the books they have written.
I have known Leonard for some time. By fate, or coincidence—however you want to frame the way events unfold—he lives around the corner from me, in a small wood frame house built shortly after the war: a modest, bungalow of the sort that used to be ubiquitous all over the state. There are yellowing Venetian blinds across the front picture window, a desk on other side of those blinds, a room filled with shadows, a couch, a rattan chair, shelves lined with books.
The fact that Leonard lives in the same neighborhood, though, had little to with why I came that night to City Lights.
It was on account of the book. Because it had moved me in a certain way, long before I’d known Leonard. And still does.
The world Gardner writes about in the novel—Stockton in the late ‘50’s, the world of gyms and trainers frequented by young men nursing deeper aspirations—this was not part of the world where I grew up, in the suburbs of San Jose. It still existed in San Francisco back then: a much different city than it is a now, a port town whose heyday as a venue for legendary ringside battles and fat purses had not quite passed. There was also a kind of minor league of smalltime boxing venues that ran up and down the West Coast and east to Salt Lake. Boxers often traveled to them alone, unable to afford a trainer in their corner. The payoff was small.
But I didn’t know about any of that growing up.
I first read Fat City some 30 odd years ago when living in New Orleans, homesick for California. I had been attracted by the noirish cover on the Vintage Paperback, and also by Joan Didion’s endorsement. She described the novel as “a metaphor for the joyless in heart.” It was the kind endorsement that appealed to me. Though Gardner’s subject matter is much different than Didion’s, they cover similar physical and emotional terrain in their renderings of California. If there is a nostalgia there, it is a dark nostalgia: a yearning for the forlorn, for the desolate and forgotten. I liked the book because it evoked the landscape in ways that rival Steinbeck, but felt hard-nosed, more real, less sentimental. It reminded me too of California writers like Chandler and MacDonald—and just a bit of Hollywood cast-offs like John Fante—who knew something of life in the shadows of paradise. At the same time, there was something deeply tender and familiar in the yearnings of the characters.
I read the book in New Orleans, reread it, then reread it again a few years later when my wife and I moved to Spokane, Washington, a town with its own hard light, a Greyhound Bus Depot, a boarded up Carnegie library, endless freight trains passing over the trestles.
Maybe the town has changed since, but the desolation for me was its saving grace.
My wife, Gillian Conoley, had a teaching job. She made most of the money. I was stringing for UPI, meantime working on my second novel. The more I worked on it, though, the more I looked out the window at those endlessly passing freights—the more I realized the book was not only a tangled mess, but a hopeless imitation of Fat City.
I put it in the drawer.
Gillian is a writer, too, a poet. She had a good job. Her career was going well. We had friends, no real reason to leave. Ultimately though the pull south to California, to whatever remained of home, or my idea of it, was just too strong.
A couple of years later in San Francisco—maybe this was 1990, or ’91, I don’t know—I learned Gardner would be at a retrospective at the Castro Theater: a screening focused on well-regarded movies that had been box office flops. Among these were John Huston’s Fat City, the 1972 film based on Gardner’s novel. It is one of Huston’s best films, up there with Asphalt Jungle and The Dead, remarkably faithful to the book, as Huston films often were. Gardner wrote the screenplay.
I brought my copy of the Vintage paperback version of the novel for Gardner to sign: the same dog-eared copy I’d carried around since New Orleans. Also—though it felt foolish—I gave him a copy of my own first novel, published a few years before. Gillian brought a copy of her first book of poems, Some Gangster Pain.
He looked pleased, bemused, but also a little puzzled, as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. We gushed, lingered, then turned to leave.
“So, you don’t want anything?”
This wasn’t exactly true. I suddenly felt very silly.
“What could I want?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just sometimes, people want something. ”
He put his hand on my shoulder.
The truth, I did want something. I just didn’t know quite what it was, maybe. Or how to say it. Or maybe I knew but also knew it wasn’t something he could really give me.
I wanted to write a book as good as Fat City.
Leonard Gardner is often referred to as a writer’s writer. Meaning, I suppose, that his work is more popular and influential with writers than with the general public. Whether this is true, I don’t know. The book has been reprinted several times in English and translated into numerous foreign languages. Not all of these readers could be writers, I don’t think, though it’s true at times the world seems full of them. Too full. It is also true that many writers—of very different sorts—have admired Fat City, sung its praises, grown and suffered under its influence. Didion once wrote it was the kind of novel every writer wished to have written. Crime novelist Ross MacDonald said it was one of the best novels he had ever read, putting it in the category with Melville and Twain. More recently Denis Johnson talked about the indelible mark the book had made on him, so much so he sometimes felt every word he himself had written was in the shadow of Fat City.
The book starts out like this:
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. Whoever it commemorated, the hotel was a poor monument, and Billy Tully had no intention of staying on. His clean laundry he continued to put back in his suitcase on the dresser, ready to be hurried away to better lodgings. He had lived in five hotels in the year and a half since his wife had left him . . . His room was high and narrow. Smudges from oily heads darkened the wallpaper between the metal rods of his bed. His shade was tattered, his light bulb dim, and his neighbors all seemed to have lung trouble.
Tully works as a fry cook and drinks up his wages. He is a former boxer, 29 years old, haunted by the memory of his ex-wife. In the throes of that hopeless desire, hungover, he heads to the local YMCA, overcome by the notion he left his career too soon. Here he spars briefly with Ernie Munger, a gangly, young man ten years his junior.
From this point, as Denis Johnson says, “the stories of Ernie Munger, a young fighter with frail but nevertheless burning hopes, and Billy Tully, an older pug with bad luck in and out of the ring, parallel one another throughout the book. Though the two men hardly meet, the book blends the perspective on them until they seem to chart a single life of missteps and baffled love.”
That evening at City Lights, I edged past the others on the stairs and found myself a place to lean inside the famous room up there on the second floor, above what had once been Cavalli’s Books: where Mussolini’s voice had blared during weekly broadcasts from an outdoor loudspeaker back in the ‘30’s. And where Ferlinghetti later started the now infamous City Lights Books, a publishing house on a different side of the political spectrum, which found itself at the center of the censorship trials in the late ‘50’s.
Eddie Muller, who has his own ties with Leonard, took the role of interviewer that night. Eddie had sought Leonard out at one time, too, with his own first novel. More than that, Eddie’s father and namesake had once been the boxing columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Leonard had read those columns and followed the careers of the boxers there.
Of course there is very little boxing in the city anymore, or need for a boxing column. And the Chronicle too is a shadow of itself.
The conversation that evening was book-ended by two short readings. Eddie began the evening by reading from the opening of Fat City. And Leonard closed the event out an hour or so later, reading a scene where Tully attempts his comeback against Arcadio Lucero, an aging Mexican boxer.
It is a moving scene in the novel, but also in the film, where Huston shows Lucero stepping from the bus, with the demeanor of an aging, wincing matador, pissing blood in the urinal before the fight.
In between these two short readings, Muller asked the kinds of questions people ask at these things: about how the book came into being. Though I have known Leonard for some time, I had never heard him talk much about his own process.
I knew he had gone to San Francisco State and studied in the Creative Writing Program sometime in the early ‘60’s. I knew he had attended that school about the same time as a number of other writers, including Don Carpenter, author of Hard Rain Falling, and Gina Berriault: a dark-haired woman from Long Beach, daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who later won the National Book Award for her selected stories, Women in their Beds. Gina and Leonard lived together much of the time and were close companions until her death in 1999. I knew that while working on Fat City Leonard had worked for a while parking cars in a downtown garage along with another young writer and SFSU student, crime novelist Joe Gores. I also knew, later in his career, he had worked for several years with the TV producer David Milch as a writer for NYPD, and did his work for that show on a battered old Smith Corona long after everyone else in the trade had switched to computer.
Gardner, 82, grew up in Stockton California. He worked the boxing circuit when he was young, about the same age as his protagonists. I have seen the faded news clipping of him as a young man posing with a Stockton boxing club. It hangs in a small frame on the wall of his living room. He was rangy then and still is now. His face bears the marks of those early years: a nose that looks to have been broken more than once, flattened and pushed to the side—a boxer’s nose. Leonard is relatively soft-spoken, not all the time, but most. He seems to listen when you speak, with eyes that fall to the floor and then back to yours, alternately shy and penetrating. He does not fill the air with words, but speaks slowly, in a voice and rhythm that to my ears bears the inflection of an older California, children of depression era migrants, Okies and farmers and ranch hands and laborers that had come out here from the middle of the country. His father used to take him along on walks through downtown Stockton, into the bars there. While his father drank and talked with the men in those bars, Leonard studied the taxidermy on the walls. This was what Leonard told me once when we were sitting in the Elks Club in San Francisco, looking at the stuffed head of a giant elk. There was a boxing gym, too, on those streets where he grew up, more bars, service stations, men disembarking from buses after long days in the field, anxious for a drink. The air stank of the delta, long days of endless heat.
The Hazleton Public Library had not yet been demolished, with its 25,000 titles. So there was plenty of reading material. Meanwhile Owl Drugs—like drug stores everywhere at that time—stocked pulp paperbacks in ways that did little to separate the sacred from the profane; literary and genre writers mingled together on the shelves behind covers that didn’t necessarily have much to do with the content. Erskine Caldwell alongside Mickey Spillane alongside Stegner and Steinbeck and Faulkner and Zane Grey, and Flannery O’Connor, all in revolving racks positioned somewhere between the candy bars and the foot powder.
When Muller asked Gardner if there were any books from that time hat might have influenced him, he mentioned B. Tavern, author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre:
“Tavern wasn’t a very good writer, pretty terrible in a lot of ways, but I read all his books. I read a lot of boxing novels, too, at some point, but most of those were melodramas, and they weren’t very real. So when I realized I could be a writer, and maybe had some talent . . . I didn’t want to write a book like that . . . I wanted to write a book that captured some of the darker side of things . . . And had the feeling of something real . . . Some writers work in conventions, certain things have to happen, in particular places, but I wasn’t interested in that. You only get so many chances with your material. So I thought just because I had Billy Tully in the first chapter, it didn’t mean I had to stay with him. If I wanted to write about another character for a while, to visit the onion fields, or something, why couldn’t I do that?”
Though Fat City focuses primarily on Munger and Tully, it does move into the consciousness of other characters, sometimes for entire scenes, other times only in passing. The shifts do not seem to grow out of schematic but out of circumstances, out of evolving narrative. True, the events, the scenes, almost always center around Tully and Munger, even when they themselves are off-stage, or involved in activities far from the ring (as they are most of the time). Though there are impressionistic moments, and a degree of interiority, of reflection, the book is on the clock when it comes to the narrative momentum; suspense rooted not so much in action, though that is part of it, but in the fates of the characters, even when they are just hanging around, lost in reminiscence. There is a reason for this. The underlying conventions of the boxing story form the skeleton of the action: the process of training, the distractions of romance and love and alcohol, the build-up to the important match. Though these conventions are familiar, they don’t feel familiar in Fat City. Or rather they have the feeling of the familiar, the pleasure of that, while at the same time undermining it. Partly that’s because this is boxing in the regional circuit, far from the big time and the hype, where the gains are transitory, where the trainer can’t afford to travel with you to the big bout, where stepping into the ring is as much about emotional sustenance as it is survival.
Fat City is extremely evocative it its details. Eddie Muller—who grew up around the ring, in the shadow of his own father’s daily boxing column—asked Leonard how much research he had done while putting together the book.
As it turns out, of course, the book didn’t come together all at once. There was an earlier version called The Gym. “The boxing part, I knew pretty well,” Leonard said. “I was into the scene, so you know I followed that.” There were other things, though, about which he had less familiarity, including the nature of the itinerant farm work Billy Tully undertakes to pay for his lodgings.
“I was living in San Francisco while I was working on the book,” said Gardner. “There used to be a place where the bus came to pick up men, in the early morning. Down there by the old hotels. They came while it was still dark. To pick up the men from the hotels, itinerant workers, and drive them out to the fields. So I went out there and stood in the line. I didn’t do this for a regular living, I’m not saying that. But I went out there on the bus, and worked different jobs. I didn’t live the life of a farm worker, I’m not saying that. I just felt if you are going to write about something, you maybe should know a little bit about it.”
The bus rattled past the dark houses, gas stations, neon lit motels, and the high vague smokestack of the American Can Company, past the drive-in movie, its great screen white and iridescent in the approaching dawn, across an unseen creek beneath ponderous oaks, past the cars and trailers and pickup-truck caravans of the gypsy camp at its bank and out between the wide fields . . . As the blazing curve of the sun appeared, lighting the faces of the men jolting in the bus—Negro paired with Negro, white with white, Mexican with Mexican and Filipino beside Filipino—Billy Tully took the last sweet slug of Thunderbird and his bottle in its slim bag rolled banging under the seat.
—From Fat City
The novel is full of this almost documentary realism, evoking the work in the fields: the task of thinning tomato plants; long hours with a short handled hoe; the bagging of walnuts beaten from the tree. Also the grey streets of Stockton, the gas stations, the mud hens by the river, the Lido Gym, the wrapping and taping of a young fighter’s hands before he steps in the ring, the lovemaking between this same young fighter and his girlfriend in the back seat of a car in the pouring rain, a rain so fierce and hard that the car gets stuck in the mud.
Fat City is a novel in the naturalist tradition, in the older sense of that term: realism in which the fate of an individual is cast as a struggle in the wake of social and natural forces. The prose is finely tuned, realistic, in a transparent style that focuses not so much on itself but on the object and actions rendered. There is a lyric quality, but it seems to emerge from what is observed, not from the hand of the writer. Yet it isn’t the detail alone that gives the reader attachment to the characters.
There’s that baffled love.
I am not sure really I know how to explain this.
But it permeates the novel. It’s there in Tully’s affair with Oma, another man’s woman, a hopeless lush whose sharp insults Tully longs to escape but whom he regards with a drunken tenderness that reduces him to tears. It’s there in the scene where Tully’s trainer, Ruben Luna, makes love to his own aging wife, while thinking of a waitress in gabardine slacks. And also in the hopeless desire that gives way to sudden resentment, a feeling of being trapped forever, when Ernie Munger finally loses his virginity in the backseat of that car, impregnating a young woman, his future wife, whom he seduces by confessing a love he’s not sure he really feels.
That baffled love permeates the Huston film as well. Eddie and Leonard talked about that film, starring Stacey Keach and a very young Jeff Bridges: how the director cast old timers from the boxing world in San Francisco into supporting roles; how the actress who played the drunken Oma bore an eerie real-life resemblance to the character herself; how John Huston was an aficionado of the old circuit, of the lost world of gyms and back-road boxing venues.
They talked, too, about a review of the novel when it first appeared, a favorable review that had nonetheless irked Leonard, by referring to the characters as “beautiful losers:”
“Yeah, that rankled me at the time. It pissed my off. Because I wasn’t writing about beauty. That wasn’t the thing. Also, the characters weren’t losers. Not in my view anyway. They had something they wanted. They pursued it. They fought for it. And they succeeded. They weren’t losers. So that characterization kind of bothered me. But maybe the guy was just trying, in his inarticulate way, to say something about the book. About what he saw there.”
I thought back to my own lack of words that evening I had sought out Leonard in the Castro. I hadn’t expected that I would see him again, but then a few weeks later, we ran into him at the poet George Evan’s place out in the Sunset District, that foggy remote part of the city once covered in sand dunes. Non-fiction writer Bill Barich was there, author of Laughing in the Hills, and so was Gina Berriault, in all her beauty and elegance. Steve Vendor, too, if I remember, a private detective, and also Clancy Carlile, Leonard’s best friend, a Cherokee novelist and screenwriter who later worked with Clint Eastwood. Over the next several years, we formed a circle of sorts—though none of us would have referred to it that way, in that kind of parlance. There was nothing formal, just a loose knit group of writers with something resembling a shared sensibility. Who had at times the need to see other people. To sit in the back room at the felt table in Tosca in North Beach. To stand around Bill Barich’s house in San Anselmo. To drink until closing on a hot night with all the doors and casement windows wide open while outside litter and trash and discarded wrappers and old newspaper swirled in the Mission Street dust. The circle did not last forever of course. Names changed, faces. People divorced, died, moved away.
Then somewhat by coincidence—maybe it was a dozen years ago, not long after Gina’s death—Leonard moved around the corner. He had no idea we lived the next street over. It was several months before I went up and knocked on his door.
Sometimes I run him into at Colonial Liquors. Or see him walking down by the lagoon near the old police station. Sometimes at a party. Once he and I and the poet Alissa Valles and Gillian went to the race track over in Golden Gate Fields and lost some money. Sometimes, when he is out of town, my daughter feeds Pi the cat, and I check the mail. At such times I will linger for a while on the couch, maybe, reading randomly from the books on his shelves, or maybe just lie there watching the motes in the slanted light that falls through the blinds.
When the event was over, I lingered at City Lights. I took pictures with my cell. I talked to Eddie Muller. To Peter Maravelis, the event manager at City Lights. To book artist Steve Vincent. To Alissa Valles, the poet and translator who these days lives with Leonard, and to her friend the Russian-American writer Anastasia Edel. We planned to meet afterwards at a bar across the street, soon as Leonard was done with the signing. Meanwhile a long line snaked away from Leonard at the signing table, all the way down to the bottom of the stair. It became clear he would be here awhile. I grew impatient and went outside to catch some air, to smoke a cigarette.After the reading at Specs Bar, Columbus Avenue. Anastasia Edel, Alissa Valles, Leonard Gardner, Eddie Muller. Photo Courtesy PFLA Newswire.
I knew this part of town pretty well, North Beach, the old Italian neighborhood, with Chinatown around the corner, and the ghosts of the old Beat writers in the black and white photos on the walls inside City Lights. Of course the city has changed—everybody knows that, the wild influx of money, of technology—but just standing there it still looked pretty much the same. There was an SRO around the corner, a flophouse, absurdly priced no doubt, but a flophouse nonetheless. A man stood in the doorway coughing. A young man and woman across the street embraced sloppily, then pulled away from each other, arguing, before tumbling toward the Barbary Coast, the line of strip joints that runs down Broadway. A cluster of tourists negotiated the crosswalk. Then for a moment the street was all but empty. Or that was how it seemed. There was no breeze, and I felt the heat, still lingering, the smell of the Central Valley in the air, of the hinterlands, of human sweat and longing and desolation that neither money nor fog nor the future could dispel. I heard voices behind me, coming down the stair. I put out my cigarette and walked across the street to the bar, to wait. To drink too much. To drive across the Golden Gate to the other side.
— Domenic Stansberry
First print rights to this article provided to Numéro Cinq from the PFLA Newswire, a project of the Pacific Film and Literary Association, a 501(3c) non-profit.
Domenic Stansberry is an award-winning novelist known for his dark, innovative crime novels. His North Beach Mystery Series has won praise in The New York Times and other publications for its rich portrayal of the ethnic and political subcultures of San Francisco. An earlier novel, The Confession, received an Edgar Allan Poe Award for its controversial portrait of a Marin county psychologist accused of murdering his mistress. He is the author of nine novels and a collection of stories. He has a new book coming out in 2016, THE WHITE DEVIL, with Molotov Editions.