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Fat City: An Appreciation


Wednesday, March 30, 2005

By Lawrence Levi

Of all the great downer movies made in Hollywood in the early Seventies, John Huston's Fat City is one of the best. Set in the low-rent milieu of Stockton, California, it's the story of a washed-up boxer (Stacy Keach) who wants to get back into shape and the sprightly 18-year-old (Jeff Bridges) he urges into the ring. The film pulls no punches, especially in its portrayal of bottomed-out drunks. (Susan Tyrrell's performance as a loudmouth barfly is a particular treat.) The movie marks a lesser-known high point in Huston's long career, and its reputation has only improved since its release on DVD two years ago. What seems to be slipping from notice is the devastating novel it's based on.

When Fat City was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1969, its jacket bore accolades from literary bigwigs like Joan Didion and Walker Percy. It was nominated for a National Book Award along with Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Joyce Carol Oates' Them (Oates won). Its author was Leonard Gardner, who grew up in Stockton and whose busted nose in his author photo suggested some familiarity with the world he'd written about.

The movie is bleak but funny, finding its rhythm in comic beats; the novel is a spare, compassionate study of desperation and failure, of "the desolate reality of defeat." While the movie is faithful to the book (Gardner wrote the screenplay) and its seedy locales are perfectly captured by cinematographer Conrad Hall, it necessarily lacks the book's anguished interior monologues. Gardner gets us into the bruised heads not only of Billy Tully, the washed-up boxer, and Ernie Munger, his protege, but also their preternaturally hopeful manager, Ruben Luna, and, for a chapter, Arcadio Lucero, a proud Mexican boxer who gets off a Greyhound in Stockton with diarrhea. All of them are constantly fighting off the awareness that they're not going anywhere, a feeling that pervades even their most intimate moments: when Ernie loses his virginity, he thinks, "Was that all there was to it? Perhaps it had been celebrated out of proportion because there was nothing else to live for." There are none of the boxing-story cliches about triumph or redemption. There's only survival.

Though the book still gets cited as a classic boxing novel, or a great California novel (the University of California Press reissued it in 1996), neither label quite conveys its artistry or emotional impact. Now and then a novelist will tout it as a personal inspiration, as Denis Johnson did in Salon: "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."

Fat City was Gardner's first novel, and he hasn't published another. He did write the screenplay for a 1989 movie nobody saw, Valentino Returns, and served for years as a writer and producer on NYPD Blue. He's now in his seventies. At a talk I heard him give in 1994, Gardner said he had left some good stories out of Fat City because he was saving them for another book. I hope he's writing it.




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