Fifty years ago, in 1969, a boxing novel unlike any other that has seen the light of day, before or since, was published. Fat City, by Leonard Gardner, upends the triumphalist clichés of boxing stories, in which a palooka from nowhere overcomes all obstacles through fierce dedication and hard work and wins the title.
To say that Fat City is about boxing would be like saying that In Search of Lost Time is about parties in Paris or Moby-Dick is about whaling. Boxing is the setting, and it’s one that Gardner knows firsthand. But the novel is about hope, illusion, and love, and the corruption and self-deception that destroy those things. It’s a lean and sinewy novel, without a single surplus sentence. Considered a masterpiece—by Joan Didion, Denis Johnson, and Raymond Carver, among others—the book is still in print at New York Review Books.
Fat City follows two would-be boxers—one, eighteen-year-old Ernie Munger, is on his way up, while the other, twenty-nine-year-old Billy Tully, is in a downward slide. No matter how hard they train, no matter how much they believe in themselves, no matter who they have in their corners, neither will ever get anywhere near a championship belt.
The book is set in the city of Stockton, in California’s Central Valley, where Gardner grew up. Stockton is noted for its high crime rate and its low literacy level. It is the second-largest U.S. city to have ever filed for bankruptcy. Ernie and Billy frequent greasy, fleabag hotels; sweaty gymnasiums with flooded, blocked drains; blistering fields where boxers earn a day’s pay picking onions or tomatoes; and violent skid row bars where patrons nurse their cut-rate shots and beers. In 1972, Gardner wrote the screenplay to adapt Fat City into one of the saddest movies ever filmed, directed by John Huston.
Gardner lives in Marin County, California, about a hundred miles from Stockton. He is now eighty-five, tall, lanky, and cordial, with a full head of hair more brown than gray. He is under contract for a second novel. I caught up with him in Berkeley to talk about the book, its film adaptation, and his life as a writer.