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Fat City

4.07 of 5 stars 4.07  ·  rating details  ·  523 ratings  ·  86 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 McInerneyCathedral by Raymond CarverSelected Stories by Andre DubusRock Springs by Richard Ford
Best of Vintage Contemporaries
15th out of 53 books — 21 voters
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Best Manfiction
474th out of 1,068 books — 402 voters

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Community Reviews

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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...more
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
Tyler Jones
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...more
Carl Brush
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
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.
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...more
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...more
Joey Gold
"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...more
Timothy Jeffrey
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
Andrew Nette
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.
For fans of fatalism, boxing, and just an absolute mesmerizing style, this book, which may, tragically, be out of print, is a must-read. There are multiple perspectives, which for a short novel can easily be jarring but here is held together by two boxers destined to lose out on the American dream, one on the ascending side of his career, and one on the tail end of his flagging career. The trainer is sort of the connective tissue between the two, and he also is in search of the American dream. I...more
S.W. Gordon
It's interesting that this book was written in 1969 and yet the story resonates perfectly 45 years later. I think every boxer brave enough to step into the ring has a tale to tell---usually of hardship and despair. I help sponsor a local boxing team and Gardner's dirty realism is dead on. The only difference is that our coach is a community hero who inspires these young men (and women), holds them accountable and protects them from the seedy side of boxing. Coach enforces a strict "school first"...more
Apr 26, 2007 Anna rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: writers
Shelves: novels
I learned a whole lot about writing from this book.
I won’t lie: I knew nothing of this book (or the acclaimed movie version by John Huston). It was only after reading how vital and important it was to Denis Johnson (check out his essay on, who is one of my favorite authors, that I decided to give it a shot.

Along the lines of Hemingway and Bukowski (and I might’ve said Johnson as well if I didn’t now know what I know) – economical, sparse, raw. Gardner depicts a depressing and dark slice of life most of us will never encounter... where...more
Probably closer to 3.5, this is an interesting exercise in minimalist techniques – Gardner manages to move from scene to scene with little in the way of transitions, almost to the point where I had trouble following certain paragraphs that started in one time/place and ended a week later. It gave the novel a dreamy, vignette-like feel, which can be likened to the in-and-out-of-consciousness states of the boxers who populate it.

Speaking of, the boxing scenes are great, and told in an exciting wa...more
Wu Ming
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
Sep 30, 2008 Drgibson63 rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
Recommended to Drgibson63 by: Saw the John Huston-directed film
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
When discussing POV as a function of regionalism the direct approach is best. For example, the question can be asked: how does the narrator’s choice of regional details connect to thematic focal points and plot points? If all worthy fiction adheres to the Aristolian foundation of being a “mode of imitation,” it must, by extension, employ an imitation of a mind or self within the narrative. Synonyms abound for this effect—POV, voice, style, tone—and yet it eludes quantitative measurement. In this...more
A fine short novel. I read the book because I'd seen it mentioned by Denis Johnson as one of the reasons he'd pursued writing, and while I didn't find it nearly that spectacular, I found a lot to like.

Each chapter is short, impactful and primarily focused on one character at a time, alternating among main characters and minor figures. Most of the book focuses on two amateur boxers, the older Billy Tully (though just under 30, he's weatherbeaten) and the younger Eddie Munger. As they both grind...more
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
This little gem is well worth a read. A masterful piece of stark realism, it follows the lives of two boxers in Stockton, California in the 1950s. Using third-person narration, it switches between the two characters from chapter to chapter, but also diverges on occasion to follow other characters as well. The combined effect of this for the reader is that you develop a vast well of sympathy and compassion for each character, even those who would typically be painted as villains, such as the prot...more
“When he imagined escape it was always to his wife that he fled, yet when an argument offered the break with Oma he had wished for, he knew, in the soberness of fear, that his wife was gone from him forever, that the course of his life could be no other than what it was, that without Oma he would be alone, that he was lucky to have her and would have to soothe her, agree with her and try in the future not to vex her. He rendered to her the same apologies and declarations he had rendered to his w...more
Jamie Thunder
Less a story than two trajectories in 1950s California - Billy Tully, estranged from his wife and an over-the-hill boxer at 29, and Ernie Munger, whose career in the ring starts after a chance meeting with Tully.

It's a book of quiet desperation with some acute passages as the two weather the fights, failed comebacks and events thrown at them. The fights themselves are brutal and the dialogue sparse and true, and you leave it with the feeling that even though you're no longer watching them they'r...more
Simon A. Smith
The great American bummer, aye? Well, it was a pretty good book. For me, the best writing came during the actual accounts of the boxing bouts. I also really liked the grimy, gritty, dismal feel of Billy Tully drinking every chance away in a sad-luck hotel - Every day seemed to be either wicked hot or filled with rain and smelly gutters.

The one thing that may possibly be it's downfall, is that you've probably already heard this story before. You've probably seen "On the Waterfront" or maybe you...more
Oliver Bateman
One of the top four books I've ever read about California. The other three: The Day of the Locust, Ask the Dust, Tapping the Source. But this is by the far the best. With the exception of Hubert Selby, Jr.'s absolute finest work (meaning a few of the interlocking stories from Last Exit to Brooklyn and that's about it), have the lives of pathetic, limited losers (i.e., the great mass of us, who are always cursing our fates and forever lowering our expectations) ever been rendered with such skillf...more
Liz Ellen Vogan
A not so much moving as fascinating view into a pivotal slice of time for a down-on-his-luck boxer and a young boxer at the beginning of his career. A sort of odyssey, this novel felt clunky at times. Fly-on-the-wall dialogue sessions without much context and partially drawn characters before we're in the meat of the story made it read like a script more than a novel. Sure, there is some good prose here, hardscrabble as it is to come by...but the short novel seems mostly dialogue hanging out the...more
A beautiful look at the beautiful a not so beautiful setting. The story oozes hoplessness, and yet we still feel hopeful for our characters.

Billy Tully is almost comical in his innocence and misunderstanding of his own self. Yet, there is nobility in his emotions...or attempts at emotion.

Ernie Munger is the more hopeful of the least in my view. However Gardner succeeds in directing us towards feeling that his future is somehow, or will somehow be, interlocked with Tully's.

Wasn’t that great of a book. I mean it was ok for the most part but everyone was Holden Caulfield angsty and alcoholics trying to get back into shape to box (boxing). It was tiring near the end there.
The story of two desperate boxers trying to fight, love, establish a sense of themselves as men, set in Stockton, California. A great novel of desperation and lost dreams set in a rural northern Californian, that for me was better than Steinbeck and in many ways better writing than Didion. Gardner's only novel. It took him seven years, and wound up being a mere 182 pages, despite initial drafts running 400 pages. Published in 1968, he has not penned another novel to this day. When asked why, he...more
Apr 18, 2012 Evan added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Bukowski fans
A decent book about manhood. The novel tracks three men -- 2 boxers and their manager -- in southern california in the fifties. Ernie is a young, up-and-coming kid discovered by Billy Tully, a 30 year old who gave up the sport two years prior but now must work fruit and vegetable fields to make money. Billy is the core of the novel and he's pretty unlikeable, but still sympathetic. He's really just upset that he let his life as a boxer go.

The dialogue is good, if a bit forced in places. The cha...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.” 7 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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