Leonard Gardner in conversation with Eddie Muller
Thursday, September 17, 2015, 7:00 P.M., City Lights Booksellers, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco
City Lights in conjunction with the Film Noir Foundation and NYRB Books present
Leonard Gardner & Eddie Muller in conversation
celebrating the re-release of the literary classic
by Leonard Gardner
published by NYRB Books
Fat City is a vivid novel of allegiance and defeat, of the potent promise of the good life and the desperation and drink that waylay those whom it eludes. Stockton, California, is the setting: the Lido Gym, the Hotel Coma, Main Street lunchrooms and dingy bars, days like long twilights in houses obscured by untrimmed shrubs and black walnut trees. When two men meet in the ring—the retired boxer Billy Tully and the newcomer Ernie Munger—their brief bout sets into motion their hidden fates, initiating young Munger into the company of men and luring Tully back into training. In a dispassionate and composed voice, Leonard Gardner narrates their swings of fortune, and the stubborn optimism of their manager, Ruben Luna, as he watches the most promising boys one by one succumb to some undefined weakness; still, "There was always someone who wanted to fight."
Leonard Gardner was born in Stockton, California. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Esquire, Southwest Review, and other magazines. His screen adaptation of Fat City was made into a film by John Huston. A Guggenheim Fellow, he lives in Northern California.
Eddie Muller is the Bay Area's very own "Czar of Noir". Impresario, author, publisher, and film preservationist, as Executive Director of the Noir City Foundation, he has done much to preserve historic noir genre films at risk. Each year he produces the Noir City film festival at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. He has been featured as a host on Turner Classic Movies and has presented numerous commentaries on noir video collections. He is the author of the noir classics The Distance and The Shadow Boxer.
Praise for the writing of Leonard Gardener:
Really a superior performance…Gardner takes us into the bitter fancies of two professional prizefighters…the first is a has-been, the second is learning to lose. A third character, their manager, links the pair in defeat and frustration…Gardner strips them of everything except the most important thing: their singularity…of such a seemingly small gift is dignity born and success measured.
Fat City affected me more than any new fiction I have read in a long while, and I do not think it affected me only because I come from Fat City, or somewhere near it…[Gardner] has got it exactly right…but he has done more than just get it down, he has made it a metaphor for the joyless in heart.
Gardner has laid claim to a locale that others have explored, but seldom with such accuracy and control…in a tone that is both detached and lyrical. The triumph of the book is its action. Running, fighting, loving, weeding, harvesting, these men stay in motion in order not to be doomed. So powerfully does Gardner record their actions that we recall their lives, not their defeats.
Gardner's book should be taken slowly. The chapters are constructed with great care, worked, polished and fitted like precision parts in a beautiful engine. There is a comic chapter on the physical attributes of boxers which could easily be overlooked, three pages as delicate and funny as the calmer Twain. Chapter Four, a short section ending a magnificent description of a boxer doing roadwork, withstands the closest scrutiny.
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.
Leonard Gardner wrote Fat City as a moody elegy to the wayward dreamers who fight in tank-town arenas, then retreat to flophouses and shotgun weddings, day labor and rotgut drinking binges.
In his pity and art Gardner moves beyond race, beyond guilt and punishment, as Twain and Melville did, into a tragic forgiveness. I have seldom read a novel as beautiful and individual as this one.