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Fat City

4.10  ·  Rating Details  ·  924 Ratings  ·  146 Reviews
Fat City is a novel about the indestructibility of of hope, the anguish and comedy of the human condition. It tells the story of two young boxers out of Stockton, California: Ernie Munger and Billy Tully, one in his late teens, the other just turning thirty, whose seemingly parallel lives intersect for a time. Set in an ambiance of glittering dreams and drab realities, it ...more
Paperback, 183 pages
Published October 12th 1986 by Vintage (first published 1969)
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A Fan's Notes by Frederick ExleyBright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerneyRock Springs by Richard FordCathedral by Raymond CarverSelected Stories by Andre Dubus
Best of Vintage Contemporaries
15th out of 55 books — 24 voters
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutThe Godfather by Mario PuzoThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le GuinThe French Lieutenant's Woman by John FowlesSylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
Best Books of 1969
32nd out of 48 books — 31 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 2,032)
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Sep 20, 2015 Brian rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Brian by: Rod
California is a story of two states. Norcal and Socal, for all of their rivalries and proclamations of differences are really two sides of a coin. It’s moving inland - where the politics shift right, home values decrease and employment outside of the agriculture sector becomes more scarce – this is where you’ll find the other California, the second state, the place that looks and feels so different from the coastal cities it may as well be in the Midwest.

Stockton is one of these inner California
The obligatory Introductions in the nyrb-classics series are often scholarly analysis by well-known authors. Don't tell, but I often skip them, or cherry-pick an important date or two therein. But Denis Johnson, in two pages (I like that), didn't try and tell me how smart he is, or how his writer's insight is more important than my mere reader's view. No. Instead, he wrote about what it is to be a fan of an author or a book. He told this story:

My friend across the road saw Gardner in a drugstore
Aug 16, 2012 Tfitoby rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lit
Why haven't you heard of this book?

I'm one to talk, owing my knowledge of Leonard Gardner to having recenty had the pleasure of watching John Huston's forgotten cinematic masterpiece that was adapted from it. So that's a forgotten movie and a forgotten book. And Gardner never published another novel. The novel becoming the perfect allegory for its own life in hindsight?

Ernie Munger and Billy Tully are two amateur boxers, Ruben is their trainer. All three men have dreams of making it big, of a ha
The writing, the dialogue, the plot, the down-and-out characters with their demons--Leonard Gardner's Fat City is a total knockout.
Jun 09, 2012 Rod rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If you're a writer, and if you're going to write just one novel over the course of your career, please try to make it as good as this one.
Robert Hobkirk
Jan 19, 2016 Robert Hobkirk rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It took about 2 months to get Fat City from the library, there was that much of a waiting list although the book was published back in 1969, so it wasn't like some recent highly promoted book that people just had to read because of all the rave reviews. Apparently it has a cult following. I read it before, several years ago. As I read it, some things came back to my memory like deja vu. This is the one and only novel by Gardner although he's made his living working as a writer for TV. He spent 4 ...more
Tyler Jones
Sep 18, 2015 Tyler Jones rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: boxing
Denis Johnson, one of my favourite authors, has often cited Fat City as the book that made him want to be a writer, and after finally getting around to reading it I can see why. Leonard, like Johnson, illuminates the lives of the under-privileged with empathy without getting sentimental. One senses that Leonard gets very close to the heart of the matter.

Focusing on the lives of one boxer on his way down and another just starting his career, Leonard is able to create an over-all picture of what l
Jul 27, 2015 Kenneth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Another knockout from NYRB Classics. Fat City tells the tale of two down-and-out boxers in Stockton, California. They box, they fight with their women, they lose, they win, they win nothing. Gardner's prose is lucid and poetic. There's so much to admire in this novel, it's a wonder that it isn't renowned as an American classic. I hope this reissue expands its audience.
Nov 16, 2009 Matthew rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found this fascinating. It's all about the sustained miseries and brief thrills of boxers. It was published in '69, I think it is set in the late fifties.

The details of the boxing life are gloomy, but they are not without grace and fine emotion. The main boxing trainer in this book, Ruben, has been training quitters for years, but his optimistic dialogue with his boxers breaks your heart (and makes you laugh).

This book does not encourage you to root for anybody. It's not about championships. I
Apr 11, 2009 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
You know those evolution posters, where you get the silhouettes of apes transforming into a Cro-Magnon man into a human into a slacker with a surfboard (or whatever)? Fat City gives a portrait like that, only its characters each represent a stage in a certain kind of life. It is a novel of a time and place, Stockton CA in the 1950s, for a down-low segment of society--men scraping by on bad work, boxing, and a brand of love craved and despised. The novel is exquisite in its misery, honest to it ...more
Poetic, empathetic, so much sorrow and beauty, and so much more than a boxing novel.
Aaron Mcquiston
Sep 26, 2015 Aaron Mcquiston rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nyrb-classics
I was excited to see that "Fat City" was the novel of the month from NYRB classic subscriptions because I had seen the John Hudson movie years ago without realizing it was a novel as well. I did not remember much of the movie, except that there was a boxing theme and that Jeff Bridges was very young in it. Reading the book made me think not of this movie, but of other literature, particularly that of Charles Bukowski. These are Bukowski characters, those who drink and fight. Those who cannot mai ...more
Wu Ming
Dec 29, 2010 Wu Ming rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
WM2: Come spettacolo sportivo, la boxe non riesce a piacermi. La maggior parte degli incontri che ho visto era di una noia mortale, divertenti quanto uno zero a zero per chi non ne capisce di calcio. A parte questo, riconosco nel pugilato una forza evocativa superiore a quella di altri sport. Forse è grazie alla sua semplicità archetipica - picchiarsi finché l'altro non va giù - fatto sta che i migliori film di genere atletico hanno a che fare coi guantoni (se si escludono Ogni Maledetta Domenic ...more
Matt Beckwith
Mar 06, 2016 Matt Beckwith rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I can't believe it took me so long to read this great novel. This story takes place in my hometown of Stockton, California. And in true Stockton fashion, I purchased the book, in its third printing, from Bill Maxwell from Maxwell's Bookmark ( at Stockmarket (

I was captivated by the story at first because of the familiarity with my city but quickly became engrossed by the story lines of the two main characters, Tully and Munger. I hav
Nigel Bird
Jan 14, 2016 Nigel Bird rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
‘At one time he had believed the nineteen-fifties would bring him to greatness. Now they were almost at an end and he was through.’
Fat City centres upon the lives of a stable of boxers and their coaches. In truth, it’s not much of a stable. There are has-beens and hangers-on and never-had-a-hope-in-hell characters who sometimes turn up to train and sometimes don’t.
Things look to be on the upturn when Tully discovers a new talent in the form of the young Ernie Munger, so much so that Tully begin
Apr 26, 2007 Anna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: writers
Shelves: novels
I learned a whole lot about writing from this book.
Carl R.
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 from 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 themselve ...more
Joey Gold
May 10, 2013 Joey Gold rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
"In the morning waking was like a struggle with death. Exhausted in the dismal sheets, hearing the coughing….he was laded with remorse. His life…had turned against him. Catastrophes seemed to whisper just beyond hearing."
("Fat City", Page 161. An obvious paraphrase...).
Yes, this is mostly a pessimistic book, but I would like to explain while it's still the most powerful book I have read thus far.
Most works dealing with down-and-about blue collar folk, even great books like "Ironweed", feel a bi
Timothy Jeffrey
Feb 16, 2013 Timothy Jeffrey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the Great American novels of all time, and one of its greatest authors because – like Harper Lee – he knew enough not to continue, or shall we say, get out of the ring? Gardner did what few novelists understand is their job...that is, he plumbs the depths of the emotional life of people little-known to the rest of us by showing rather than telling in some selected moments the horror and pathos of their lives. That's the hardest thing to do, but the only way to respect the reader enough to ...more
Oct 18, 2015 AC rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Grim, authentic, morally rich... Superb little book!
Oct 11, 2015 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Gardner's only published novel became a film in 1972, made by my fave director John Huston (which features memorable performances by Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and Susan Tyrrell). The film version was hailed as something of a comeback for Huston - since a few films he made just prior weren't hits. I don't know that Huston tended to concern himself with 'hits'. I think he usually made the films he wanted to make without much concern about whether they would be crowd-pleasers. But 'Fat City' did ma ...more
Fat City is a book so beautifully written that it seems at times far from its subject matter. One could see it as somehow cruelly inappropriate to use intricately crafted sentences writing about characters who by their very nature could never appreciate them.

The characters are involved with amateur boxing, everyone hoping to earn a little money from either getting beaten up, beating someone else up, or training the fighters and arranging the bouts. When they're not fighting, the boxers get farm
Jun 12, 2007 Lee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: people who like serious hard-boiled dude writers like james salter who write beautiful sentences
Boxing. Poor folks. California. A while back. Beautiful sentences. Lauded by Denis Johnson as his primary influence. Sort of slow, but worth going slow. Worth reading again and again for writers maybe more than for purely readers.
Nicholas Montemarano
One of the best books I've ever read. Even better now than when I first read it 20 years ago. Word for word, sentence for sentence, perfect. This is the first time I've read it since having become a huge fan of Denis Johnson. As Johnson writes in the intro to this new edition (New York Review of Books Classics), FAT CITY had a huge influence on his own work; he and his writer friends would read and recite passages from Gardner's novel. Johnson says, "Leonard Gardner has something to say in every ...more
Cort McMeel
Jan 13, 2012 Cort McMeel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A classic book that combines noir and the fight genre to a remarkable effect. Written in tight, restrained prose; the characters in FAT CITY are memorable many years after having read the book. A favorite of mine.
Feb 10, 2016 Goatboy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Emotionally brutal.
Whatever small rays of light and hope open up in the story momentarily are instantly drown out in bleak darkness.
Andrew Nette
Dec 21, 2012 Andrew Nette rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A late entry on my list of best of books for 2012. I just loved this book, the story, the setting, the writing. Everything about it worked.
James Murphy
Apr 22, 2016 James Murphy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
Burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.

Homer, from Book VI of Iliad. I was reminded of it by Fat City, which is in many ways about the rising and falling of men in their season. The scene isn't Troy but Stockton, California, and the characters aren't warriors but boxers struggling to win a name and a little money. They live a kind of marginalized life made u
Boxing is a sport that's had its day, and despite recent movies like The Fighter, I'm not sure how its still relevant. Of all the sports fans I know, and when you're not one it seems you run into a fan every time you're waiting, I don't know a single person who considers boxing at all. Professional wrestling gets more attention, and maybe for good reason. I don't see any boxers pulling a snake puppet out of their trunks and jabbing the other guy in the face with it.

But enough of that.

Fat City i
May 01, 2011 Cbj rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: alienation, americana
Small book. Tough read. I had seen the John Huston-Stacey Keach-Jeff Bridges movie six months ago and liked it a lot. I read the novel over the weekend. Its about the boxing scene in Stockton, California - described through the lives of two boxers, their lovers and their common trainer. It is a sad novel about the ups and downs (mostly downs) in the boxers lives as they grapple with all the bad luck, the women, ennui and sloth. The characters were extremely fatalistic, seemingly unable to conque ...more
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Leonard Gardner is an American novelist, short story writer and screenwriter. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, Esquire, The Southwest Review, and other publications, and he has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.He lives in Marin County in northern California.
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“He felt the guilt of inaction, of simply waiting while his life went to waste. No one was worth the gift of his life, no one could possibly be worth that. It belonged to him alone, and he did not deserve it either, because he was letting it waste. It was getting away from him and he made no effort to stop it. He did not know how.” 8 likes
“The sky darkened, the liquid singing of the blackbirds diminished and ceased, mud hens swam back to shore, climbed up the banks and huddled in the willows. The lights of a farm came on in the brown distance where patches of tule fog lay on the barren muddy fields. A wind came with the darkness, rattling the license plate, and a low, honking flight of geese passed.” 2 likes
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