“Fat City” Revisited

By Adam Berlin on February 23, 2017
“Fat City” Revisited
I revisit Fat City every few years the way I revisit The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby.

Boxing seems a natural fit for the novel. Truths are revealed, sometimes gracefully, as Hemingway might suggest, and sometimes not so gracefully at all…

I met Leonard Gardner at a Boxing Writers Association of America dinner eight years ago. He won the A.J. Liebling award for outstanding boxing writing, and I went over to him and introduced myself. What we had in common was our agent at the time, Robert Lescher, who took me on because of a boxing story I’d published in a sports literature journal. When I found out my agent also represented Leonard Gardner, I was very happy. I’ve read a number of boxing novels but, for me, only two stand out as great: W.C. Heinz’s The Professional and Leonard Gardner’s Fat City, first published in 1969 and just re-published by the New York Review of Books Classics series.

I’ve read Fat City several times, revisiting it every few years the way I revisit The Sun Also Rises or The Great Gatsby, and I read Fat City again this past week, struck again by its beautiful prose that is poetic without calling attention to itself, and by the grace with which Gardner moves from character to character so that we come to know the essences of the three main characters, men connected to the rough business of boxing—Billy Tully, a veteran fighter, Ernie Munger, a fighter starting out, and Ruben Luna, a retired fighter turned trainer. 

The struggle that is part of boxing, that makes boxing a sport that’s more than sport, that has inspired so many literary writers to at least touch boxing in their work, that inspired Joyce Carol Oates to write Life is a metaphor for boxing, not the other way around, which means boxing is life, that struggle, elevated and condensed in the confines of that squared circle, is humankind’s struggle. What goes on inside those four ropes shows man for what he is, what he’s made of, which is what life does. In this way, boxing seems a natural fit for the novel, where characters are tested, put under pressure, so that their truths are revealed, sometimes gracefully, as Hemingway might suggest, and sometimes not so gracefully at all, which is what happens during most of Gardner’s fight scenes. 

In stark, almost-clinical detail that somehow magnifies the cruelty of a one-punch KO, here’s how Gardner writes the end of Ernie Munger’s fifth bout while Ruben Luna looks on:

“Though Ernie maneuvered with a degree of skill, there was an aspect of futility in it all. When he reached out with both gloves to block a left, Ruben’s hand went into his sweater pocket for the ammonia vial and a right swing ended with an awesome slam on the lean point of Ernie’s chin.  He went down sideways along the ropes, toppling stiffly in the roar, and hit the canvas on his back, his head striking the floor, followed by his feet.  His eyes stared momentarily, then closed as his body went rigid.”

Many boxing novels are written in the first-person, creating an I-am-there-in-the-ring feel, the narrator as fighter, or a first person narrator who is at least close to the action like the newspaper reporters who narrate The Professional or that other famous boxing novel Budd Schulberg’s The Harder They Fall

Gardner did fight as a young man in amateur tournaments, he knows what it is to get in the ring, but he chose to write Fat City in the third-person, often an omniscient third-person, which allows him to highlight the boxing is life idea, and to comment on struggle carefully and poignantly and articulately, more articulately than the rough men in his novel could think or speak. What’s impressive is that Gardner uses his point of view so skillfully that the novel’s insights, even when they move from the grounded, tactile, physical world to more cerebral, philosophical places, never feel jarring but seem to come naturally from the scenes, as if the characters are indeed thinking these thoughts, are indeed aware of the complexities of their feelings. Most of these higher moments, which start at the gut level and move upward, are tied to helplessness, to powerlessness, which is the human condition, and sometimes, more briefly, the moments are high and ecstatic, which is part of the human condition too.  But mostly, these rough men go through rough times and feel the roughness of life. 

In this, my most recent reading of Fat City, I kept thinking of Samuel Beckett’s Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, who punch and flail and say they can’t go on, but do go on. That’s exactly what Billy Tully does during one of the novel’s longer chapters, which highlights the long day of work spelled with a consciously capital W, where Gardner describes Tully’s pain in the tomato fields, a day that beats this professional athlete up more than a fight, it seems. The long descriptions of hard labor under the sun, under the spotlight of life, make this day feel like too much for Billy Tully.

And the day of this novel feels like too much for Ernie Munger—in his first fight where his nose gets busted, in his fifth fight where he’s knocked out cold, near death it seems, and in his claustrophobic, unfulfilling relationship with his new wife Faye.

And the day of this novel feels like too much for Ruben Luna, who fears for his fighters because it seems he was responsible, at least partly, for the death of one of his charges, who believes beyond belief that he may have a prospect in Ernie Munger, but who knows, truthfully, that he doesn’t even have a contender.

But all three men go on. And that’s what Gardner’s book is about. Even in Stockton California, too stark and too hot and too poor, where people are ground down, where even sex feels oppressive, a chore, something to get and then something to get through, even in Stockton life goes on.

Here are a few quick lines from Billy Tully’s tomato-field chapter that highlight, articulately, this boxing is life, existential idea:

“He could not resign himself to the inexorable day; he would have to quit, and the others, he felt were fools in enduring.”

“He labored on in the despondency of one condemned, the instrument of his torture held in his own hand.”

“Yet he also felt he could not go on even for another hour.”

That’s Billy Tully. That’s Didi and Gogo. That’s Sisyphus. That’s all of us at our cores.

But the chapter ends, “But the pay was ninety cents an hour, and two days later he was again gripping a short handled hoe.”

Can’t go on. Go on. That’s what Leonard Gardner’s characters do.

And that’s boxing at its best. That’s what raises boxing to tragic theater as Joyce Carol Oates would tell us, what gives us, or at least me, that rush when I’m at a live fight, close to ringside, and two men fight, testing themselves the way no other athlete is tested, doing more than is expected of them, doing more than seems humanly possible, working with a capital W. They go on. Whenever I see a fight that goes to those dark and beautiful places, a fight between two evenly matched opponents because, as in fiction, the best fight is a fair fight, I feel some of the catharsis that tragedy brings. I’m at least a little in awe of these men who try so hard and suffer for it. 

In the ring, in that microcosm, these men go on. Above the ring and all it represents, the gods or god or fate is always pressing down, but during these special fights, the struggle feels worthy enough. It’s what the painter George Bellows saw when he painted boxing, the most famous of his paintings called Both Members of This Club, which gave me the title of my boxing novel, and which shows two men struggling in the ring, one black, one white, in each other’s way but holding on too, dancing almost but killing each other, while the clown-faced crowd looks on, almost like gods, smiling at the futility of the struggle. But the men in this painting continue to struggle anyway—like Ruben Luna, like Ernie Munger, like Billy Tully, the three pugilists who never stop fighting in Leonard Gardner’s superlative novel Fat City.

Adam Berlin is the author of four novels, most recently the boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). He teaches writing at John Jay College/CUNY.  For more, please visit adamberlin.com.

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  1. Charles Fabrizio 11:26am, 04/03/2017

    Terrific assessment and thoughts on the superb “Fat City.” Heard you at Shakespeare & Co. book reading group. You were equally excellent on the book then and equally insightful in this, shall we call it, “reappreciation.” Well done! I look forward to reading your “Both Members of the Club.”

  2. didier 07:36am, 02/25/2017

    Fat City is a great novel I did read it several times translated in Dutch.
    It’s far better than the movie and a must read.

  3. Moon Man 07:14am, 02/24/2017

    It was a great movie. Very underrated in the world of boxing movies. The ‘70’s were probably the last decade of movies that were worth the price of a ticket. Nowadays we are blessed with comic book movies, and Fast and Furious sequels.

  4. George L Otto 05:29am, 02/24/2017

    Never read the book.  However, it is the basis of a film of the same name which was released in the early 1970’s.  Directed by John Huston and starring Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges, it is simply outstanding.

  5. Sean Matheny 04:58pm, 02/23/2017

    Great article!  I agree wholeheartedly on your choices of what you consider the “great” boxing novels.  I have not read your boxing novels yet Adam, but I am going to seek them out.  To me the most masterful boxing short stories are “Fifty Grand” by Hemingway, “133 at Ringside” by Charles Van Loan and “A Piece of Steak” by Jack London.  I recommend them highly to any boxing fan.

  6. Bill Angresano 11:00am, 02/23/2017

    Heartfelt and poetic in itself, this poignant article. What writers and artists “return to” is always interesting and has great insight.

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