While easily associated with the affluence of Silicon Valley and the glitzy nature of Hollywood, California is a state best read at street-level, the real and the mundane, about those who are trying to make it so desperately. The New York Review of Book’s reissue of Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s one hit wonder of a novel, reminds us of the grit it takes in this state, about people struggling for a moment of greatness no matter how quickly it might fade.
Set in 1950s Stockton, the book takes place in a shithole. The Central Valley, though often avoided in literature (apart from Steinbeck), is home to our first pages. “Home” is temporary, with a boxer in a flophouse debating if his prime has passed. But in a burst of inspiration, the boxer, Billy Tully, hustles to the YMCA to hit the bag where he spars with a young boy, Ernie Munger, where the narrative weaves between the two and their forays into and back into the sport.
Gardner pits these two, though often on the same side, on different parts of the arc: one boy coming up and his future blank like a canvas before the fight, the man on the other side, beyond his prime and his past painted in a story of sweat, blood, KO’s, and loss. Sometimes we are given, and blessed with, other narrators, other boxers or trainers that round out our perception of this niche, era, and social class in the author’s writing prowess.
Gardner’s California is not unlike Steinbeck’s: lower working class, Central Valley farm work on a day to day basis, the weight of the world that always crushes the poor. The story is resoundingly masculine through its all-male narrative cast, illustrating the male indignation and the often-literal fight to break out of a caste into something better. Gardner’s Golden State does not often take place in the setting of Stockton, but rather in the desperate life of the fighter, who sees the state as favorable from its opportunities, where hours can materialize into dollars or even greatness.
Fat City is not a tale without hope. It is easy to read as desolate, but the author portrays hope not as a hot streak across the sky, but rather a light that flickers, hums, and burns cool. Gardner shows boxing at its purest: scrappy, blue collar, a period sport. Boxing is his vessel of struggle in a place where greatness is a few counties away, sometimes just out of reach. And that, is timeless.
Fat City, Leonard Gardner, 1969 (reprint 2015), 200 pages
Pairs best with a dive bar