‘Fat City’ author still a contender

Leonard Gardner, author of “Fat City,” is working on a second novel.
Leonard Gardner, author of “Fat City,” is working on a second novel.

Look Leonard Gardner up and down, make a quick assessment. Remnants of youthful pugilistic virility endure. His waist is trim as a teenager’s. His arms, though showing the loose skin of aging, remain ropy and strong. That nose, flattened and spread across his face in the manner of so many former fighters, looks as if it could still take a punch. His knuckles, pale pink, are as sharp as his wit. His lank hair, only threaded with gray, falls over a brow fissured by time and experience.

“Were you a welterweight?” you ask.

“I am a welterweight,” he says.

Talk with Gardner about literature and the craft of writing, and watch him step into the ring with quiet dignity. He downplays the import of his 1969 boxing novel, “Fat City,” set in Stockton and hailed as a masterpiece of “dirty realism” fiction, widely regarded as a template for heavyweights like Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Denis Johnson. Instead, he references, with hushed reverence, the stark economy of early Hemingway, the sociological impact of Steinbeck and the utter perfection – no lesser superlative fits – of the short stories of Anton Chekhov, particularly the sublime “The Lady With the Dog.”

“I’m starting to feel chills just remembering that story,” he says.

Ask him something so straightforward as his age, and look at him bob and weave, feint and jab from the other side of his kitchen table. He explains that, in his family, which settled in Stockton post-World War II, no one spoke of age. His father, buying fishing licenses every year, always wrote down “50” on the application and never acknowledged birthday milestones. His grandfather lived to 99, “perfectly good in the head,” so age is irrelevant, is what Gardner is trying to convey.

And then, after a prolonged pause in which the only sound is the dripping of the kitchen faucet, he unleashes the verbal equivalent of a knockout left hook.

“Why I don’t want age in the article is that, see, I am trying to come back with a novel,” he says. “The last thing I need is the discouragement of thinking, ‘Man, I’m so f-ing old, I’ll never finish it; I’m going to die.’ ”

He exhales. You stagger back into the conversation, stunned that, after all this time, there might be a second Leonard Gardner novel.

“You’re working on a new book?”

“Sort of, yeah. I can’t tell you I’ve got a mountain of a manuscript but ...”

But there’s still more he wants to say about the age thing.

“Here I am,” he continues. “I screwed around, let a lot of time go by, wasted time, didn’t write things I wanted to. But I still want to and maybe I’m cranked up to do it now. I’m hoping these (family) genes will come my way. Otherwise, I might as well think, ‘Why write? I’m too old. I may as well just go down and have a few beers.’ But, no, I’m trying ... ah, you know what I’m saying, right? I just don’t want to start thinking I’m on my last legs. I don’t see I gain anything by people who read newspapers thinking I’m washed up.”

He pauses once more, then grins.

“Anyway, I’ve stated my case for not putting my age in.”

‘Bleak eloquence’

The New York Review of Books “Classics” series recently reissued “Fat City,” which had been out of print for more than a decade. This is not the first time the novel, concerning two downwardly-mobile boxers trying to maintain their dignity in gritty early-1960s Stockton, has had new life. In the 1980s, Vintage Contemporary put out a sleek edition. In the 1990s, the University of California Press did the same. Over the decades, excerpts have appeared in several fiction anthologies focusing on quintessential California prose.

Each time, a flutter of attention has come Gardner’s way. Critics have long praised the novel’s stark and spare humanity. John Schulian, in the Los Angeles Times, wrote: “In 183 pages without an ounce of fat on them, he told a story as real as the smell of sweat, a story made that much more pungent by pitch-perfect dialogue.” David Thomson in the New Republic raved about its “bleak eloquence.” Aaron Gilbreath, in the literary journal Tin House, wrote that the novel’s reputation has grown “into one of the great sleeping giants of modern literature.” Joan Didion has said that Gardner made “Fat City” nothing less than “a metaphor for the joyless in heart.”

In this reissue, the accolades resume.

In his introduction, Denis Johnson, a National Book Award winner (best known for “Jesus’ Son”), said it is “a book so precisely written and giving such value to its words that I felt I could almost read it with my fingers, like Braille.” Johnson told how writer friends of his could “quote ecstatically line after line of dialogue” and how he finally had to put “Fat City” aside for fear that “I’d never be able to write anything but imitations of it.”

It’s not as though “Fat City” went unnoticed upon initial publication, when Gardner was in his 30s and fresh from graduate school at San Francisco State University. It was nominated for the National Book Award, alongside Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and Joyce Carol Oates’ “Them.” (Oates got the nod.) The novel was turned into a 1972 John Huston-directed movie, for which Gardner wrote the screenplay.

Yet, for all the acclaim “Fat City” garnered, for all the influence it exerted – a then-unpublished Raymond Carver was “excited and envious” about Gardner’s novel and sought him out, according to Carol Sklenicka’s 2009 biography of Carver – there was never a follow-up. Gardner went on to pen screenplays, including adapting one of his pre-“Fat City” short stories into the 1989 film “Valentino Returns.” David Milch, creator of the TV hit “NYPD Blue,” so admired “Fat City,” teaching it in his literature classes at Yale, that he hired Gardner for the series. Gardner wrote more than two dozen episodes over five years. Glossy magazines such as Esquire hired him to cover boxing, including an essay about the George Foreman-Ken Norton fight in Caracas, Venezuela, that boxing writers revere.

But that second novel? Where was it? Years went by, then decades, and still no book. Was it the cumulative pressure wrought by the initial burst of acclaim? Was it Gardner’s own notorious perfectionism – it took him four years and as many drafts to whittle “Fat City” into shape, after all – that stifled creativity? Or was it simply the case that Gardner belonged in a class of noteworthy one-book authors, alongside Ralph Ellison and Harper Lee (“Go Set a Watchman” notwithstanding)?

You feel Gardner out on the subject, engage in a rope-a-dope line of questioning. He doesn’t give many interviews, and you don’t want this bout to end prematurely. When you recite a quote attributed to Gardner in a 2009 appreciation written by legendary boxing writer George Kimball – “Sometimes, you only get to win one championship” – Gardner winces.

“I never said that,” he says. “I try to be compulsively modest, so I wouldn’t even say I’d even won a ‘championship’ with ‘Fat City.’ ”

Pressed, he focuses his heavy-lidded eyes on you.

“I guess I lost my way and got distracted by TV and movies,” he says. “There’s a good reason (writers are drawn to Hollywood) – money. It’s called making a living. It’s funny. Almost all the novelists now seem to be teachers. I picked up a novel yesterday. It said, ‘He received his Ph.D. from blah blah,’ as if all writers get Ph.D.s. ... I just didn’t feel like being a teacher, so I had to eke out a living writing screenplays and teleplays.”

Gardner, though, has a master’s degree in English from San Francisco State. He wrote parts of “Fat City” – or, more accurate to say, rewrote – while in graduate school. But he belonged to no writers’ workshops. While writing, Gardner parked cars at a San Francisco garage and worked at a post office. He also returned to his native Stockton to research “Fat City” by working in the fields, topping onions and weeding tomato rows and, of course, hanging out at the local gym hitting the heavy bag. One night, he said, he stayed at a “flophouse” hotel in downtown Stockton. He shakes his head, remembering the squalor.

That experience is translated into this vivid passage of “Fat City,” in which washed-up boxer Billy Tully nurses a hangover in a dive called the Hotel Coma: “Smudges from oily heads darkened the wallpaper between the metal rods of his bed. His shade was tattered, his light bulb dim, and his neighbors all seemed to have lung trouble.”

Tinkering with sentences

Gardner’s modest ranch house sits in an older, tree-lined neighborhood of Larkspur, in Marin County. Somehow, it’s fitting that his home is book-ended by the lush grandeur of Mount Tamalpais to the west and, a few miles east, the forbidding walls of San Quentin, for “Fat City” is nothing if not a meditation on rugged beauty and abject degradation.

He opens his screen door in a gray, long-sleeved dress shirt and khaki pants, neatly pressed. He had asked, over the phone, that the interview be delayed several days so that he could clean his house. His girlfriend – poet, translator and novelist Alissa Valles – had returned to Boston to work on a Ph.D., and he said the place was a mess, three days of dishes in the sink. But as he leads you through the living room – lined with crammed bookshelves and with stacks of books spread over the coffee table – and into the kitchen, you note that the sink is spotless.

“The one thing I wanted to do is mop the floor,” he says. “Didn’t get it done.”

Unusual, it seems, that an acclaimed writer who has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and won a Peabody Award for his “NYPD Blue” work would fret over such prosaic things as a clean kitchen. But Gardner, exacting in all things, holds himself to high standards. An Italian newspaper recently asked him to write a first-person piece about creating “Fat City” – the book is set to be reissued in Italy – and Gardner wasn’t completely happy with the finished product. “At least,” he says, smiling, “I can’t read Italian, so I won’t be embarrassed by it.”

Such whittling of words, such passion for precision, is one reason so many writers appreciate “Fat City.” You ask if his repeated revisions (at one point, the novel was twice as long as its 191 pages, in the current edition) was painstaking and arduous. He shakes off such a notion.

“It was really the best time of my life,” he says. “It wasn’t like a chore. I liked tinkering around with the sentences.”

Gardner says he hadn’t reread “Fat City” in many years before the current reprint. You ask his impressions. He gives another crooked grin.

“I always liked it,” he says. “This reading seemed to have more of a, well, a dark side than I remember. But I don’t think I exaggerated Stockton.”

A few months ago, Gardner says he drove around Stockton and was mildly surprised to see “there’s still some pretty poor neighborhoods with homeless setting up camps. I thought the old skid row was supposed to be torn down and replaced, but it still looked like it.”

Gardner maintains affection for his hometown. His most cherished memories involve boxing. He says he had only seven “official” bouts as an amateur and had his nose broken twice. He boxed a bit in the Army and later at San Francisco State. He tells how he came up with the sensory details for a key chapter in which Tully gets knocked senseless in a bout but remains standing. Gardner stands and re-enacts the scene, raised fists, head feints and all. Story goes that Gardner was in Santa Barbara sparring in a backyard with a friend – an ex-Marine with a body sculpted like a Greek god and a mind suffering from a mild case of PTSD – when the guy delivered a left hook that sent him reeling.

“I was totally on queer street, as they used to say,” he says. “I looked at him and his chin was floating 5 inches to one side. He had this crack in his face. All the trees had cracks in them. Nothing fit together. I thought ... ‘This is serious.’ I put that all in the novel. This is where experience helps a writer.”

He translated his farm-labor toil to the page as well. Once more, Gardner rises from the kitchen chair to illustrate, this time showing how using a short-handle hoe literally is back-breaking. “I remember asking one guy – I put this in the book, too – how long to takes to get used to it, and he said, ‘I’ve been doing this 20 years and you never get used to it.’”

It’s been 46 years since the initial publication of “Fat City,” and, now, its creator is back up off the canvas, back at work. He won’t divulge plot or even the progress of the project. You ask, as a last punch before the bell, whether Stockton will appear in the new work.

He absorbs the blow.

“It looks like it, yeah.”

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Leonard Gardner

    Born in Stockton. Lives in Larkspur (Marin County)

    Author of the 1969 boxing novel “Fat City,” set in Stockton. Hailed as a masterpiece of “dirty realism,” the book is considered a quintessential part of California literature.

    “Fat City” was made into a 1972 film directed by John Huston and starring Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges.

    Gardner, winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Peabody Award for his writing on the television series “NYPD Blue,” is currently working on a second novel.