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The Frontiers of American Tragedy

'Fat City' by Leonard Gardner (University of California)

“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 Bill Tully had no intention of staying on.” It’s almost trite to start at the beginning, but it’s as good a place as any in Leonard Gardener’s debut novel, 1969’s “Fat City.” From its opening moments, “Fat City” vaults the pretense of the so-called ‘boxing novel’—then a genre unto itself and at the time one as viable as the eminently popular ‘western novel’—and leaves it far behind. In a way, these first lines do more to circumscribe the western genre than they do the boxing genre. Almost instantly, Gardener crystallizes the already-swelling malaise taking hold of the national consciousness in the decline of the 60s counterculture, mediated through the lens of its physical analogy: the American Frontier. It’s at this very moment, in 1969, when America is faced with the choice of acknowledging its limits, be they the shores of the Pacific, the streets of Chicago or the defoliated landscape of Vietnam. But Bill Tully, like so many others, is unwilling to look.

Only the most gifted storyteller can say all of this without saying any of it. “Fat City” is chiefly an examination of an American society that refuses to reflect on itself. Instead, it is one obsessed with its own culture and tradition—futilely reciting its own history, vaunting the likes of pillaging explorers and toothless prospectors into high history, however much it may reel in disgust over where that history has left off. The punchdrunk men that shuffle in the streets of Stockton, CA are the orphans of generations prior, generations with some war or famine or calling to give them purpose. So they fight.

The fighting never finds purpose, and the fighting never becomes a purpose in and of itself. Nor does boxing become some sort of metaphor for life or pseudo-fascist cathartic experience. Gardener’s no fool. If anything, boxing becomes a symbol for the sort of self-flagellation these men undergo in their blind need for a spiritual home. Far from heroic, or even sympathetic, Gardener renders them as drifters, dangerous pilgrims wandering in amnesiac hazes or fevered dreams: “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.” When Tully lies among these men in the park, the town cuts down the trees that provide their shade. Communities take only an interest in their dispersal. Their only place is in the dungeons of gymnasium locker rooms. The face Tully sees may as well be a memory of his own.

Gardener baits the reader with a formula that would ordinarily indicate a redemption story: Tully, a fighter who retired when a change in luck robbed him of his wife and his will, finds his taste for the sport revived—if briefly—after sparring with recreational boxer Ernie Munger, only a teenager when Tully encourages him to turn pro. The classic boxing arc would pit these two against one another in the final act—vitality supplanting experience, in expectedly American fashion—but as Munger emerges as the novel’s other main protagonist, the two barely meet one another again.

What at first appears to be an unresolved narrative gives way to something far more beautiful and profoundly troubling. “Fat City” is a novel that changes itself as it moves. Tully struggles, torn between returning to the ring and succumbing to alcoholism. One of the most vibrant and paradoxically banal sections comprises Tully’s time as a day worker reminiscent of “Grapes of Wrath;” “Tully was hardly thinking now, his mind fixed on pain and chopping and a vision of quitting time. Seeing a man go to the edge of the field, he rose and went to the foreman, who was suspicious but gave his permission. In the tall grass beside an irrigation ditch, Tully squatted a peaceful moment.” The seeming foray into social realism is actually a movement into second-order subversion; “Fat City,” even as it eschews its own genre conventions, declines shallow existential meditation in witness to the reality of the bare need to survive. Gardener’s narrative ambivalence resonates with Tully’s own casual progression toward a death that, though the reader never sees, was long-since dealt to him.

The novel’s relative obscurity has several high-profile exceptions, including Walker Percy, Joan Didion and Denis Johnson. Johnson proclaims Gardener’s influence on his work in an article for Salon.com, “I got the book and read about two Stockton, California boxers who live far outside the boxing myth and deep in the sorrow and beauty of human life, a book so precisely written and giving such value to its words that I felt I could almost read it with my fingers, like Braille.” He readily acknowledges the novel’s influence on his own first novel, “Angels;” “I could see immediately that 10 years’ exile hadn’t saved me from the influence of its perfection—I’d taught myself to write in Gardner’s style, though not as well.” That novel also deals heavily in the fallout of the Flower Generation, though its essence is more directly derivative—drug abuse, madness, and poetic flourishes of violence—with stretches of American badland serving as a surrogate for the frontier, to be conquered by Greyhound.

Reading “Fat City” in the summer of 2009, one is reminded of Darren Aronofsky’s film “The Wrestler,” and the enigmatic final scene; a tragic arc either clipped or stretched too thin; a pathetic hero caught suddenly with something left to lose. Ernie Munger, its clear, is a talented fighter. He is blessed preternaturally with qualities that Tully could never measure up to, and his future, it seems at the end of the novel, will at least be brighter than his coeval if he chooses to fight again. But to what end? “Ernie rose, and when the bus roared into the depot he was standing at the head of the aisle. He came lightly down the metal steps into balmy air and diesel fumes, and feeling in himself the potent allegiance of fate, he pushed open the door to the lobby, where unkempt sleepers slumped upright on the benches.” The novel, like the film, seems to end too soon: Munger, for the reader, is caught in a state of uncertainty. Whether it’s the purgatory of domesticity or the slow hell of fight-damage, Gardener gives the reader an interstitial space where the choice between the two is irrelevant.

—Staff writer Ryan J. Meehan can be reached at rmeehan@fas.harvard.edu.
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