Monday, December 7, 2015


Bing, bing, whop! Understand what I mean?

by Don Stradley

Boxing lost its glamour for me 10 years ago when I covered a welterweight championship bout for The Ring magazine. The turning point came at the weigh-in. The combatants, who'd starved themselves to make the weight limit, stepped onto the scales looking like a pair of emaciated teenagers. They were not folk heroes or gods, just a pair of scrawny kids. Later, I observed the "champion" at a buffet table. He was an open mouth chewer, none too bright. What I remember most was the way he spoke, like a politician: I promise to retain the title and bring it back home, and I vow entertain my supporters, and to fight this guy, and that guy...It was all as empty and rehearsed as a campaign speech. He was no more a "champion of the world" than Theda Bara was really a vamp. The other fellow, not as used to the spotlight, looked as uncomfortable as a young groom meeting his future in-laws. Why doesn't anyone write about this end of it, I wondered, how fighters are just painfully ordinary? When I heard recently that Leonard Gardner's Fat City was being republished by NYRB books, I was reminded of that dreadful meet and greet where the fighters revealed themselves to be so much smaller than life.

I'd read Gardner's book many years ago and I’m aware of its loyal cult following. I vaguely remembered it as a story of a drunk fighter trying to make a comeback. I had a stronger memory of the movie, the one where Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach are nearly upstaged by Curtis Cokes, a real life boxer who quietly steals the show in a small role. But generally, I don't care for boxing novels (or movies). They tend to be sappy, with soap opera angles thrown in, as if hatched in the mediocre minds of HBO's production team. The only boxing story I ever liked was the one by Hemingway where the fighter lives in a cave with his manager. The manager has to hit the fighter in the head with club now and then to calm him down. But even that one seemed fanciful. Maybe Gardner got it right. Maybe Gardner deserved another look.

Billy Tully, the bitter anti-hero of Fat City, first appears to us in a dank YMCA in Stockton. He's sparring with a young kid named Ernie Munger, and can't lay a glove on him. From there, the story of each character is shown in alternating chapters, with Ernie trying to break into boxing, and Tully wiling away his time in barrooms and as a farm laborer. Divorced with no work and no prospects, Tully links up with a babbling barfly named Oma, who just about drives him berserk. Tully eventually lands a comeback bout, but this isn’t the sort of story where a man finds redemption through boxing. Tully’s doomed, and we know it, not only because he’s a drinker, but because this novel was written in the sixties, when misfits like Tully usually came to bad ends. Think of Cool Hand Luke, or Randle McMurphy, or the drug dealers in Easy Rider. Granted, Tully isn't fighting the establishment like those other characters (Fat City is actually set during the 1950s; characters wear crew-cuts and sing ‘Earth Angel’ in the shower) but he's being crushed by his own anger.

If the desolation of his characters is part of what makes the novel so unique, Gardner's prose does the rest. It’s both fluid and pointed, a nice trick that few authors can pull off. I particularly liked this bit where Tully, at a worksite, unknowingly sits down next a pile of cow shit.

"Jesus Christ, you don't care where you eat, do you?" asked one of the two white men passing him where he lay under a pepper tree among a humming profusion of green-glinting flies whose source of delight, he noticed now, lay directly beside him. He had thought the odor was coming from his lunch." 

And I liked the part when Tully wanders past a theater and examines the advertisements:

“…he stopped to look at the photos of several strippers framed behind glass in silver cardboard stars flecked with dusty glitter, and in a small pad of fat on a slender, pouting girl named Estelle was an exact replica of his wife’s horizontal navel.”

These gems show up throughout the story, appearing with the suddenness of trap doors.

Gardner is fascinated by boxing’s dirty end – the broken noses, the spit buckets, the way a fighter’s body inevitably betrays him. But he’s too smart to glorify boxing. Boxing’s a job, no more glamorous than factory work. In Gardner’s world, fights aren’t won or lost by strategy or bravery; they’re won because one guy gets tired and the other one doesn’t. When Tully looks at The Ring magazine and notices the number of Mexicans knocked out in a recent fight report (the sort that used to be printed in the small agate print for the hardcore fight junkies who needed to know what was happening south of the border), Gardner writes, “these unknown defeated Mexicans so depressed Tully that he knew, with terrible lucidity, that the sport was for madmen.” Later, “the idea of fighting was disorienting in its repugnance. He felt that everyone at the Lido Gym was insane.”

Perhaps the best chapter of all is the one that focuses on Arcadio Lucero, the fighter chosen as Tully's opponent. Lucero, an over the hill journeyman of 200 fights, is on a torturous Greyhound bus ride to Stockton, eating a cow head he's purchased from a street vendor, holding it "by the horn with a newspaper on his lap." Not surprisingly, Lucero ends up with diarrhea. He's not worried, though. He's suffered from this before other fights, and knows how to protect himself. He shadowboxes in the Greyhound bathroom, and gets out between stops to run up and down the bus station steps. This is his training. "Of Billy Tully he knew nothing, and he cared to know nothing. He went where there was work, and who his opponents were no longer made any difference."

I know these sorts of fighters. I once attended a fight card at a Boston dog track to see a local kid who was being hyped as the next hot heavyweight prospect, an “Irish Jimmy something or other.” I was suspicious because his opponents had a peculiar way of falling down when they hadn't been hit. It was announced that his scheduled challenger couldn't make it, so a new guy was coming in at the last minute. The replacement looked to be about 40, with a paunch and a Fred Mertz hairline. In the second round he fell out of the ring and made a big production out of trying to get back in. The ref counted him out, and Irish Jimmy jumped in the air as if he'd beaten Tyson. But here's the punch line: an hour later, the beaten guy was in his street clothes, assisting the ring crew in taking down the ring. He was asked about the alleged punch that sent him through the ropes.

"Nah," he said. "It was a push. But the kid is strong."

"Are you really a fighter," he was asked. "Or just a member of the ring crew who stepped in?"

He assured the skeptic that he was a fighter, flown in from New Jersey by the promoter. He pointed to an elderly couple standing near the exit.

"My parents come with me," he said. "They'd never been to Boston and wanted to see it."

Gardner would’ve loved it. I met Gardner once at a dinner for boxing writers. He was quiet, but he seemed to be a kind man. The word "unassuming" comes to mind. He told a story, and I'm paraphrasing, about going to see some fights in California, maybe at the old Olympic, and then, the next day, seeing most of the fighters from the night before working a day job at a car wash. One day they're fighting for our entertainment, the next, they're wiping our windshields. I swear he told this story. Maybe I misheard it. Naturally, I asked him what he thought of the Fat City movie, for which he’d written the screenplay for director John Huston. He seemed pleased with it. He laughed about Nicholas Colasanto, the actor who played Ernie's trainer, and the trouble he'd had remembering his lines. I wanted to ask about Susan Tyrrell, the offbeat actress who played Oma, but I couldn't remember her name. Still, it was a nice chat we had outside a Chinese restaurant, and I was intrigued that such a nice man could have created such a bleak tale as Fat City. Yet, upon reading it again, I was struck by two things. For one, there's more boxing stuff in it than I'd remembered. And two, it's not boxing that brings these guys to ruination; it's women!

The women of Fat City don’t actively set out to destroy Tully and Ernie. They just seem to sit by while the guys act as if they’d been struck by a kind of psychic meloik. All we know about Tully’s past is that he had a sexy wife and now they’re divorced. Now, he drinks himself into a “morose stupor” almost every night. He sits in one shabby hotel after another, perusing True Confessions and Modern Screen, where he finds “the sad sentiment of his love.” He moves in with Oma, but she’s crazy as a shithouse mouse. He moves out; he misses her; he roams the streets of Stockton, drinking, yearning.

“When he remembered how she had irritated him beyond endurance, he detested himself for his weaknesses; if he had loved her before as he did now, he could have tolerated her. But his love had come too late.”

His love had come too late.

Ernie’s romantic life is less tragic, but no less frustrating. He’s saddled with Faye, a young lady with a “short, fleshy body that seemed to Ernie impervious to stimulation.” He struggles through their first sexual encounter, only to find that his car has sunken into a river bank. Then, in a crushing metaphor for his future with Faye, he’s soon knee deep in mud, trying to push his auto out of the muck. Ernie’s smart enough to sense his future with Faye is doomed, but not smart enough to consider an alternative. Even sex disappoints him. “Perhaps it had been celebrated out of proportion because there was nothing else to live for.” In fact, the only time Ernie seems happy in the entire novel is after his first sparring session when he “felt he had joined the company of men.”

Strange is the scene near the story’s end, where Ernie is hitchhiking home and is picked up by a pair of women who may be lesbians. As an irrational argument breaks out between the women, Ernie is kicked out of the car and left stranded in the desert. He finds his way back to Stockton, where more misery awaits. As for Tully, he vanishes into the edges of the story, the suggestion being that he drank himself into oblivion.

The movie ends differently, with Ernie and Tully drinking coffee at an all-night diner, saying little, while a Kris Kristofferson song plays in the background. I suppose this new ending was an attempt to bring the story full circle, but neither the book nor the movie knows how to end itself. Then again, how do you end a story when there's no hope for the characters?

A flaw in Huston’s film is that it aims for ennui, rather than despair, emptiness rather than anxiety. Huston’s movie is good, but there’s something about the poor souls of Fat City that can’t quite be captured on film. Because Gardner writes about such unpleasant people, there’s a tendency among his admirers to overpraise him, yet, I can’t deny that he caught something with his novel, not about boxing, but about those dreadful hours when peace of mind seems elusive, and the ghost of every old flame seems to be stabbing you in the chest, and you’re surprised to find yourself wishing that, once and for all, they’ll finally finish you off.

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