Most of the chapters in Leonard Gardner’s Fat City can function independently as set pieces. They are scenes and character studies that map some of the terrain and a few of the lives in late 1950s Stockton, California. The terrain is on the one hand endless open blazing agricultural fields and, on the other, narrow, dark bars, cramped SRO rooms, crowded buses, and boxing rings. The lives are Billy Tully, a 28-year-old once-almost-promising boxer; Ernie Munger, a 19-year-old-almost promising boxer; Ruben Luna, their middle-aged trainer; Earl, Billy’s rival for Oma; Oma, the ladyfriend of Earl, then Billy, then Earl again; and others of varying importance. The weakest chapters are exceptionally strong; the strongest are extraordinary. Combined, they make Fat City as compelling an American novel as you’re likely to find.
At first, I didn’t believe this would be so. I’d read the book a couple decades ago. That experience is described here. But by a third of the way through, this time, I began to read with trepidation. Surely, I thought, it’s too good to be true. Surely the thing’s gonna fall apart any paragraph now. I’m still, for example, years later, pissed at Michael Chabon for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. A third of the way through that book, I wrote to a friend that I thought I might be reading the greatest novel ever written in English. By the halfway point, though, I began to suspect I’d been bamboozled, and by the end I was too angry to speak. Although a gift, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union became a brace for my leaky bedroom air conditioner, where it soaked to death slowly, drop by drop. I endured a similar experience with Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. And the last third of The Corrections—really? There are others, of course, that worked so hard for my love and then, once they got me all aswoon, sauntered off, not giving a damn. They know who they are.
So let’s just say that after the first third of Fat City, I was wary. I mean, there I was, Fat City in hand, hand in front of face, trudging to the bus stop through the freezing rain, oblivious to the traffic sliding about me; and there I was on the clock, locked behind my office door, rereading paragraphs three, four, six times over; and there I was backstage before a show, finding a dark corner to hide in with my Fat City and little headlamp, focused not on my imminent performance but on Gardner’s exquisite construction. If ever there were a reader set up for a fall, it was me: Fat City‘s first third was so good that despite Chabon, Whitehead, even the great tease Franzen, I was all in, all over again, asweat with the passion. I was, I felt it, doomed.
But Gardner stayed true, winning me over completely and forever in Chapter 9, toward the bottom of page 62 and onto the top of 63. A washed-out Tully and other day workers are returned in buses from the onion fields, where they have labored bent over from sunup to dusk in scorching heat. They form lines in front of the pay windows. Tully is behind an old man who a page before had been cast, ever-so-slightly and seemingly offhandedly, as less than sympathetic. The old man steps to the window. Gardner writes:
“’Is that all you picked,’ the paymaster demanded of the old man. ‘What’s the matter with you, Pop? If you can’t do better than that tomorrow I’m going to climb all over you.’
“’Well, it takes a while to get the hang of it,’ came the grieving reply.
“Two dimes were laid on the counter under the open window. ‘Here’s your money.’
“The old man waited. ‘Huh?’
“The creased neck sagged further forward. Slowly the blackened fingers, the crustaceous nails, picked up the dimes. The slack body showed just the slightest inclination toward departing, though the split shoes, the sockless feet, did not move, and at that barely discernible impulse toward surrender, three one-dollar bills were dealt out. With a look of baffled resignation the man slouched away, giving way to Billy Tully, who stepped up to the grinning paymaster with his tally card.”
In the narrative, the time between the two dimes and the three dollars is just a few seconds—the time it takes to read the sentences. But it’s also an eternity. Re-read that passage over and over, and the paymaster’s cruelty never lessens, or shortens: it’s always seven sentences long. Those seven sentences feel like an eternity because it’s painful to watch another suffer and pain stretches time, and also because the old man cannot solve his situation. In that long cruel moment, the old man’s only move, even as he can’t quite yet bear to make it, is absolute surrender: surrender to a god/universe/paymaster so cruel it not only makes suffering the condition of life, but it also, most horrifically, makes a joke of your suffering.
As surely as we watch Billy follow the old man up to the grinning paymaster, we now know his fate, no matter how the book may end. That Billy himself doesn’t know is how Gardner achieves his tragedy. Billy, in fact, when the book ends, will have won his comeback fight, and Billy’s protege and doppelganger Ernie Munger will have just won his own first pro fight. As readers, though, we know their fates, which were written in Fat City on pages 62 and 63 and on the rest of us, perhaps, at the moment of the Big Bang.
Fat City is filled with rich passages like that, whole chapters. It’s an exquisite construction. Working against that construction, straining it, in fact, and transforming the whole enterprise into the realm of the sublime, are two features. The first is the language of Oma and Earl and, when he’s talking with either or both of them, Billy. Reading those scenes, it’s impossible not to think of Denis Johnson, especially Jesus’ Son, which is, for my money, about as profound a collection of short stories as there is. That Fat City was published decades before Jesus’ Son says only that Johnson was smart enough to recognize Gardner’s genius. The second feature is the otherwordly Chapter 20, a portrait of a journeyman Mexican boxer, which is the only non-essential chapter, construction-wise. But it’s so precise in its description, so visionary, so beautifully articulated, the world would be a lesser place without it. There are few sets of pages that the world would be a lesser place without—this is one of them.