Personal Best: Fat City

"Fat City" by Leonard Gardner

Topics: Books,

exactly which year of the 1960s the book came out, I can’t remember, but I remember well which year of my lifetime it was — I was discovering that it wasn’t a joke anymore, I was actually going to have to become a writer, I was too emotionally crippled for real work, there wasn’t anything else I could do — I was 18 or 19. Newsweek reviewed “Fat City,” a first novel by Leonard Gardner, in a tone that seemed to drop the usual hype — “It’s good. It really is.” I wanted to get a review like that.

I got the book and read about two Stockton, California boxers who live far outside the boxing myth and deep in the sorrow and beauty of human life, a book so precisely written and giving such value to its words that I felt I could almost read it with my fingers, like Braille.

The stories of Ernie Munger, a young fighter with frail but nevertheless burning hopes, and Billy Tully, an older pug with bad luck in and out of the ring, parallel one another through the book. Though the two men hardly meet, the tale blends the perspective on them until they seem to chart a single life of missteps and baffled love, Ernie its youth and Tully its future. I wanted to write a book like that.

My neighbor across the road, also a young literary hopeful, felt the same. We talked about every paragraph of “Fat City” one by one and over and over, the way couples sometimes reminisce about each moment of their falling in love.

And like most youngsters in the throes, I assumed I was among the very few humans who’d ever felt this way. In the next few years, studying at the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, I was astonished every time I met a young writer who could quote esctatically line after line of dialogue from the down-and-out souls of “Fat City,” the men and women seeking love, a bit of comfort, even glory — but never forgiveness — in the heat and dust of central California. Admirers were everywhere.

My friend across the road saw Gardner in a drugstore in California once, recognized him from his jacket photo. He was looking at a boxing magazine. “Are you Leonard Gardner?” my friend asked. “You must be a writer,” Gardner said, and went back to the magazine. I made him tell the story a thousand times.

Between the ages of 19 and 25 I studied Leonard Gardner’s book so closely that I began to fear I’d never be able to write anything but imitations of it, so I swore it off.



I haven’t owned a copy of “Fat City” in over 20 years, but I recently learned that the University of California Press is bringing out an edition this November, and I’ve ordered one.

When I was about 34 (the same age Gardner was when he published his), my first novel came out. About a year later I borrowed “Fat City” from the library and read it. I could see immediately that 10 years’ exile hadn’t saved me from the influence of its perfection — I’d taught myself to write in Gardner’s style, though not as well. And now, many years later, it’s still true: Leonard Gardner has something to say in every word I write.

Denis Johnson is the author of a collection of short stories, "Jesus' Son," and five novels, including "Angels," "Fiskadoro" and his latest, "Already Dead: A California Gothic." His last piece for Salon, "Jungle Bells, Jungle Bells," was about a monsoon-plagued Boy Scout campout in the Philippines.

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