Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Boxing Glove Book Review: Fat City

The Boxing Glove Sunday Night Book Review By Peter Silkov
“Fat City”    Written by Leonard Gardner

This week on The Boxing Glove, we are looking at a boxing novel, rather than a biography or autobiography. “Fat City” is perhaps the greatest boxing novel ever written. Boxing in fiction is too often a stereotype, with plenty of action, but cardboard characters. Fat City avoids this failing with a strong line of characters, whom Gardner brings to life with a simplistic brilliance. Fat City is a boxing novel, yet, boxing is not its main theme, and the novels main theme is its characters inner lives and their dreams and fears as they try to make it. This is a novel about people trying to survive the blows of life, and come out the other side still in one piece, something that, by the end of "Fat City" they inevitably fail to do. 

Published for the first time in 1969, Fat City is set in Stockton, California, and Leonard Gardner builds an atmosphere of hot and steamy streets, sleazy alcohol stained bars, and noisy, sweaty, claustrophobic gyms. The main characters of the novel are Billy Tully and Ernie Munger, whose paths cross as their lives and boxing careers are traveling in opposite directions. Tully is a semi-retired boxer who, though not yet 30 years old, has already exhausted his youthful talent and optimism, and now lives in an alcoholic twilight world of late night bars, run down motels, and menial jobs, while dreaming about the fleeting success and wealth that he once had.  Ernie Munger is just 18 years old, and almost a polar opposite of the grizzled and world-weary Tully. The two meet for the first time in the local YMCA, where both have gone to work out, and end up having a short lives sparring session, which ends when Tully pulls a muscle. Munger is shown to be a ’natural’ even though he has yet to have a fight, and with Tully’s encouragement, he goes to the Lido Gym, and hooks up with Tully’s old trainer Ruben Luna. The main strand of the novel’s plot follows Munger and Tully as their lives travel in opposite directions. While Munger is just starting out in his boxing career, Tully is seen attempting to comeback to a fighting career, which is already past its period of hope and potential.

As the novel progresses, we learn about the people around Tully and Munger, and how in their way, they are all trying to survive and get by the best way they know.  The boxing scenes in this book are actually quite brief, yet, this seems to make them more powerful. There are very good insights into Tully and Munger’s inner thoughts as the book progresses. Despite seeming to have youth and potential on his side in most aspects of his life, Munger is revealed to be consumed with fears over the way his life is going, including his relationship with his girlfriend, who soon becomes his wife. Munger feels as if his life is drifting upon some preplanned course in which he has no real power. His youthful energy and optimism is already becoming coloured at times by a feeling of his helplessness over his fate.

Tully is constantly veering from trying to resurrect himself to then turning back to his self-destructive drinking. Tully yearns for companionship in an effort to get over the breakdown of his marriage, but his relationship with Oma, an alcoholic woman whom he meets in a bar, proves to be yet another thing that keeps Tully trapped within his negative downward spiral.

It is often said about boxing that its popularity is due to it being a microcosm of life, this is the reason for the power of this novel; it is about boxing, but about much more. It is about the human condition. How we are all striving to survive and succeed, trying to form relationships and make them work, and at the same time, trying to figure out if we are going in the right direction.

As the novel develops, we see Ernie attempting to succeed in his fledgling boxing career, while Billy Tully attempts to return to the ring and recapture the success and happiness, which it held for him in the past.

In 1972, Fat City was developed into a film, directed by John Houston, and starring Stacey Keach as Billy Tully, and Jeff Bridges as Ernie Munger. Houston was a huge boxing fanatic, who had boxed himself, and he saw this as a boxing story that needed to be told. The film is a masterful rendition of the novel, with Leonard providing the screenplay, much of the film’s dialogue is taken straight from the original novel. It is fitting that Fat City is able to inspire such great performances from its cast. In addition to Keach and Bridges, Susan Tyrell gives a powerful performance as Oma, Tully’s alcoholic girlfriend. 

Houston also filled his cast with genuine boxers and ex-boxers, including Art Aragon, who plays Tully and Munger’s trainer ‘Babe’ and Sixto Rodriguez, who plays ‘Lucero’ who is Tully’s comeback opponent. Also in the film are Curtis Cokes, Ruben Navarro, Billy Walker, and Al Silvani. Cokes was the former World welterweight champion and was still an active fighter when he appeared in Fat City. He actually has an important role as Tully’s rival for Oma‘s affections. 

The main difference between the novel and film versions of “Fat City” is the conclusions, which of course we will not go into here, so as not to spoil it, but it is definitely worth experiencing both the novel and the film, as they both compliment each other.

In many ways, the novel “Fat City” comes across as a play, there is that kind of atmosphere about it, which certainly helps it when it is transferred to the big screen. 

When people talk about the greatest boxing films they invariably list films such as “Rocky” or “Raging Bull” or more recently “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Fighter.”
However, for an in depth down to earth, realistic character portrait of boxers, as real people, there are few films with come close to “Fat City.” 

Both as a novel and as a film, Fat City is something special, simple, and profound, without too much self consciousness about it. It is best to start with; the book and then move onto the film version, then you will really appreciate how the novel has evolved into the film. 

Copyright © 2015 The Boxing Glove, Inc. Peter Silkov Art. All Rights Reserved. Peter Silkov contributes to and

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