Gardner, Leonard (1996), Fat City, University of California Press
Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s classic novel, originally published in 1969, is a grimy, powerful masterpiece about a few lost souls in the Californian province. What makes it a masterpiece is not the basic idea. Writing about sad people, who are out of luck, forever chasing their dreams, that is a well known and well worn concept. A brief glance at my shelves tells me even I own more than a dozen novels and story collections that focus upon this issue or constellation. The same glance, however, also tells me that there are many great books among them. This is actually trite: yes it depends upon the execution, the way you do it, the words and the actual characters you develop and spin around on the page until they come to life. And if you groan, you’re right. This applies to most books, since most books are written in some kind of traditional mode of writing; the truly original, innovative works are few and far between (but, as Lydia Davis’ example shows, this doesn’t keep reviewers from attaching the “innovative” badge on everything that moves). So what is all that blather about? It’s a roundabout way of telling you that Leonard Gardner’s craftsmanship here is incredible. This work, short though it is, seems complete in so many ways that it seems to ask to be read not as some specimen of its genre, but as an exemplary model of the same.
Fat City is about the boxing scene in Stockton, California in the 1950s and focuses especially on two boxers and their manager. The two boxers are chosen to represent the beginning and the end of a career in boxing; one of them is a young man who is lured into becoming a boxer, and the other one used to be a boxer but is now a manual worker and drinker. Their story is told in 24 short chapters, some of which focus on Billy Tully, the older man and some on Ernie Munger, the younger man, some focus on other people in their environment, their manager, a woman, another boxer. Each new chapter effects a change in perspective, we are not left long, continuous narratives, Gardner skilfully swirls us around in his world, takes us by the senses, lets us smell the dirt, the sweat, the blood, he lets us see the bruises on the men’s faces, the hunched, defeated set of their shoulders, and lets us hear their yells of victory, their moans of sadness, their groans of fatigue. As we are whirled through the streets and boxing rings of provincial California, the story sometimes jumps ahead days, weeks, months; enterprises that we have seen develop over a few chapters are suddenly regarded with hindsight, as lost battles or surprisingly won skirmishes. Leonard Gardner’s characters are all convincing, but he doesn’t care whether we are convinced, he spends little time on explaining motives and sudden changes of mind. He gave us a world. It is up to us to fill out the blanks.
Fat City is about three characters, as I said, but one of them clearly takes center stage: Tully, the damaged former boxer, who, at the onset of the story, thinks about starting to take up boxing again. He used to be quite good in his time, boxing against a vastly more famous man, but losing to, as he claims today, manipulations. He lost by technical knock-out, a common reason to complain. According to this, a “technical knockout, or TKO, occurs when a boxer is judged physically unable to continue fighting. Such a judgment may be made by the referee, the official ring physician, the fighter himself, or the fighter’s assistants.” I have heard a few complaints so far, some more weighty, some less. Tully’s was new to me. His corner crew, in the break before the last round, cut the skin beside both of his eyes with a razor so that he was bleeding profusely, as if from a cut received in the fight. The symbolism of this act of sabotage is interesting, aesthetically, but also in that it demonstrates to what extent the boxer can be or feel isolated during the fight. For all the talk about managers and trainers, boxers often hear little of what they say during the fights. They need to cope with the situations that arise best they can, keep their head down and work their hands in a way that ensures their survival. There is no glorious floating like butterflies not stinging like bees. As many fights amongst boxers of lower ranks, boxing is often like a bar brawl. You get punched in the face often and try to punch the other guy more often or harder.
Fat City gives us a few bar brawls as well. Gardner does not construct boxing as some kind of clever metaphor for life or male gender roles or sex; instead he hands us a handful of characters, some boxers, some not, with boxing just one occupation among many others. As a character says early on: “I don’t claim to be nothing more than I am. You maybe can fight, I’m an upholsterer. […] One man got muscles, another got steel. It all come out the same.” This is not the Wrestler (easily my favorite movie from the past Oscar season). Life between the ropes is not a magic calling, it’s not special, it’s just a job, although, when successful, a better-paying one than many other jobs Tully, for instance, is forced to do. Among these is a particularly exhausting stint as onion picker. You put your body on the line and are paid too little to be satisfied, but too much to give up the job. This occupation is remarkably like boxing. It’s exhausting, it wrecks your body and the pay depends completely upon your day-to-day performance. Bodies, sexuality and boxing have often been connected in books. The fascination with well-muscled, half-naked sweaty men having a go at themselves is understandable, but separating that part of life from the rest has always narrowed the power of boxing as a motif. Adding farm work changes all of that. There is a long and venerable tradition of writing about low-pay farm work, especially in California. Novels like Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road (remind me to review it one of these days) are about human dignity and power, poverty and power, etc.
Fat City‘s main protagonist Tully is a talented boxer, and his eventual return to boxing seems auspicious at first, but the desertion by his corner crew in the above mentioned fight and the desertion by his wife have broken him. He’s bested in boxing and he’s bested in crop picking. Small wonder he turns to alcohol for comfort. More successful but similarly broken is Ernie. His encounters with women are an unsuccessful attempt to keep the power balanced in his favor. Where, in describing Tully, Gardner offers us farm work as a complementary aspect of his life and character, he pairs Ernie the boxer with Ernie the lover. Ernie is successful with women, but almost despite himself; the same applies to his career as a boxer. He wins sometimes, loses at other times, but his life, both his private and his professional one, shows a clear tendency towards solidity, towards positive progress, although Ernie does not recognize it. It may have been Tully whose eyes were filled with blood by treacherous coaches, but it’s Ernie who is blind, who navigates through his life by ear. Ernie stumbles into boxing as he stumbles into marriage and fatherhood. Both of these men are at the bottom of the barrel, but at the same time, their manager points out that they still occupy a position of privilege. He bills them as white boxers, announcing Ernie as “Irish Ernie Munger”, although Ernie does not have a drop of Irish blood in him.
Fat City, in a very interesting sense, is about race. The aforementioned advantage that being ‘white’ gives Ernie and Tully is restricted to the small padded square between the ropes. Boxing, though it may be a job like any other, is acting, too. And on the small bloody stage that is a box ring, a white boxer, in Tully’s and Ernie’s manager’s opinion is a role that is worth playing, worth highlighting. Calling Ernie Irish in order to underscore his whiteness is ironic, surely, if we remember for how short a while the Irish were then regarded as properly white at all. As Matt Wray writes in the concluding remarks of his very readable study Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness, “lubbers, cracker and white trash have been excluded from the category white. […] The social domination that whiteness enables is of many different kinds of social difference.” And both Ernie and Tully, but especially the latter, cannot be said to exercise any kind of dominance in their lives, they buckle down and work alongside black men, they lose fights and women to black men, and even earn less than they, in the few cases where pay and individual characters are focused upon. They are white trash, and the only one who does profit from their ‘whiteness’ is their promoter, who can be said to be the one who invented it. The dark alleyways of life are numerous in this beautiful, enigmatic novel, but it is not without hope. Repeatedly it praises the power of individual resolve, the will to win. On the other hand, it’s the single most powerful character in the novel who keeps voicing these nuggets of wisdom. Tully and Ernie just tumble into the night, as we all tumble, stumble, drop until we are crushed, tired slabs of meat.