I came across Leonard Gardner’s Fat City in the mid-1980s. I was 20 or 21, working at The Strand, and I was paid in cash. Employees could buy books at a 50% discount. Each Friday, sometime before lunch, one of the owner’s assistants went from department to department, handing us our pay in little manila envelopes. The Strand knew what it was doing, paying in cash. I worked upstairs in Remainders with a defiantly non-literary crew, all of us customer-averse, male, and in various states of breakdown. But even we could hardly believe how much we could get for how little: books about drugs, about sports and serial killers, oversized art books bursting with the naked form. Each Friday evening, we lined up at the owner’s desk, which was on the main selling floor, and traded our pay for a sackful of books.
Over the years, I’ve thought of Fat City often enough. My stepfather was a tough man who, because he wanted me to also be tough, started me boxing. I held my own but didn’t have the right disposition and was, besides, already at nine-, ten-, eleven-years-old, a little lazy: the jabs, the hooks and crosses I saw coming—could see coming, actually, in a kind of slow motion—I couldn’t be bothered to avoid. It wasn’t that I was too tired or too slow; it wasn’t even that I knew that we sons of tough fathers, with our slight statures and headgear, had no way of inflicting or receiving any real damage. The reason I didn’t evade the blows was because I was too lazy to duck: it simply took less effort to watch the blows arrive than it did to avoid them.
At 20 or 21, reading Fat City for the first time, I had mistaken my laziness, as I always had, for toughness—a willingness to accept punishment—and so thought I knew something of boxers; I thought I could, in fact, understand what I would have, at 20, called their “plight.” On my mattress in East Harlem, cross-legged, back against the wall, romantic as I could be, I read Fat City as a Boxing Story and thought of its protagonists, the washed-out Billy Tully and the up-and-coming Ernie Munger, as Boxers. I thought of them, I think, as I would come to learn Eliot thought of individual poems—that each poem altered, however slightly, the entire enterprise of Poetry—, by which I mean I thought of Tully and Munger as mere arguments in Gardner’s theorizing about Boxing, and, by extension, American Life.
I read Fat City, then, as a kind of sociological study rather than as a novel. Somewhere in one of his lectures or essays, the poet Richard Hugo noted that strong social or political beliefs can cripple a writer. Those beliefs and the actions they foster may make a writer a fine human being, but the business of art, Hugo believed, is not to alleviate suffering. For that, call your priest, your rabbi, your social worker. The business of art is art, and the writer who forgets this ends up writing, instead of novels, sociological studies or, worse, sentimental junk. In the current dust up between Smarm and Snark, Hugo, I think, though personally, by every account I’ve read, a desperately shy and self-deprecating man, might captain the Snarks.
And Hugo’s notion works the same for readers, because art requires an audience. But I, I wanted the book to be about Boxing, with the capital P. I wanted a polemic. My stepfather, an ex-con who’d grown up in Buffalo and so followed the Bills, drilled into me that I was always, always to root for the underdog. And my mother taught me that the powerful always abuse the powerless. So when I sat there crosslegged in my bare little room, chainsmoking Camels, feeling as though a book could help save the world, I was completely set up, as a reader, to fail. I wouldn’t have known art had it been sitting right there in my lap, which, of course, it was.
I failed Fat City in two other notable ways. The first was that I hadn’t yet read much contemporary fiction. Because of this, I lumped, without hardly a thought, Fat City in with “social protest” novels like The Jungle and The Grapes of Wrath, novels whose value, I thought (and had been taught in high school), was precisely their sentimentality: their wont to make you feel what you ought, morally, to feel. My inexperience meant also that I was simply not savvy, literarily: I had no way of understanding how extraordinary the writing in Fat City is, or the crafting of its story.
But more important still, I think, is that I simply hadn’t lived enough, hadn’t experienced enough, to understand Fat City‘s characters. Tully and Munger are at least boxers, practitioners of a sport I knew a little about, and Munger, being about my age at the time, didn’t seem too complicated. (I couldn’t distinguish, at the time, the difference between an uncomplicated character and the writerly chops it takes to make the character as exactly uncomplicated as necessary.) But what to make of Oma and Earl, characters straight out of Denis Johnson, 20 years before Denis Johnson? Or the bedroom scene with the trainer Ruben Luna and his wife: what can a 20-year-old possibly know about middle-aged sadness? And the two women, Noreen and the unnamed driver, in the last chapter who pick up the hitchhiking Munger and then do an awful thing, seemingly inexplicably: what’s a 20-year-old with fixed ideas of how the world should work to make of all this?
Next post: Fat City, Part 2