Leonard Gardner‘s Fat City. is a close companion to Don Carpenter’s 60’s classic Hard Rain Falling, with its clean, clear prose and gritty setting. The novel is set in Stockton, CA, fifty miles from my doorstep and scarcely over a hundred miles south of where I grew up in the Sacramento Valley, and it has the same ring of geographical authenticity and the same clean, clear prose that helped endear me to Hard Rain. I was further impressed with both Carpenter and Gardner’s ability to immerse themselves and their readers in the world of his characters. An aside–They remind me of Ian McEwen in this respect. In Hard Rain, it was criminality and prison. Here, it is small-time boxing and agricultural labor. The hopes and dreams of fringe athletes, their trainers and managers, make for a yeasty storytelling. And when we follow the washed-up never-weres into the fields to trim onions and weed tomatoes, Gardner makes us feel every agonizing moment and the agonizing pain in every muscle of stoop labor from the hiring hall to the endless rows and hours under a punishing sun.
Both the older, clearly done-for Billy Tully and the younger, more promising, Ernie Munger live on the edge. Tully has actually crossed over the edge, mired in days of alcohol and regret over a lost wife and lost loves. Munger’s in somewhat better shape. He pulls down a small wage at a service station while pursuing his fights, and he manages to marry and produce a child, about which he is more or less happy.
What the characters have in common besides their time in the ring and their ties to their manager is a total lack of insight into themselves or their situations. They drift without substantial goals, without capacity for joy or love. The result is a novel of unalloyed grimness. Hard Rain, despite its horrors, had soft touches. A real romance that generates hope in readers, even if it doesn’t eventually pan out. Even the most intimate moments in Fat City, though, are fraught with angst to the point that one senses no real connection between the participants. Not that I ask for Disney joy and dancing from every book, but all ugly and no pretty or even chance of it seems a little much to ask of a reader. At least this one.