January 3, 2016

"I thought, I got something here. I can do a good book. I just have to keep going."

An American Classic: “Fat City”

An Open Source experiment here: Chris Lydon kindly handed off the hosting reins to me for a day, for an interview with Leonard Gardner, author of the classic novel Fat City.

— Max Larkin.

Imagine being a young writer on the eve of the publication of your first novel.

You’ve been working as a parking attendant two nights a week to finance the writing of the book, which captures everything about the world you know — the amateur boxing matches, gyms, and dive bars of Stockton, California (in this case). You believe your writing has taken a leap, but all you can do — in writing as in boxing — is hope.


As it turned out, Leonard Gardner’s Fat City enjoyed an unimaginably great success. It was nominated for the 1970 National Book Award alongside Slaughterhouse-Five — though neither book won. Sacramento native Joan Didion and Denis Johnson, the writer’s writer of a later generation, both adored the book; Johnson committed it to memory. John Huston’s last great film was Gardner’s own adaptation of Fat City, starring Stacy Keach and a young Jeff Bridges.

And even today it qualifies as a hard-won, humane American classic, picking up where Steinbeck, Hemingway, and James Cain left off.

Fat City is about boxing so that it can also be about everything else: ambition and self-doubt, love and disappointment, farm labor and the effects of alcohol. But at its center are two boxers — Billy Tully, who’s over the hill, and Ernie Munger, who’s climbing it. They win in losing, and maybe lose in winning. Gardner, then a humble writer with a great manuscript on his hands, still identifies with both.

Fat City is back on bookshelves in a new edition, thanks to New York Review Books. And Leonard Gardner is writing again: about Stockton and everything else. We spoke about his upbringing in California, his boxing career, and what it takes to keep going. 


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