Leave out the magic realism and switch from Albany, New York, to Stockton, California, and you might think you were reading William Kennedy. Leonard Gardener’s Fat City, despite the comparison to another excellent American author, is on it’s own a very good book.
If you know California, Stockton is not Sacramento; not San Francisco; not even San Jose. It is, however, an important hub for the commerce of California as a part of the major San Francisco economic zone. But Stockton has had its share of tough times. Wikipedia provides a depressing list of recent ills:
Due to a number of socio-economic problems, Stockton has been subject to a series of negative national rankings:
- In a 2010 Gallup poll, Stockton was tied with Montgomery, Alabama for the most obese metro area in the US with an obesity rate of 34.6 percent.
- In the February 2012 issue of Forbes, the magazine ranked Stockton the eighth most miserable US city, largely as a result of the steep drop in home values and high unemployment.
- In 2012 the National Insurance Crime Bureau ranked Stockton seventh in auto theft rate per capita in the US.
- In 2012, Stockton was ranked as the tenth most dangerous city in America and the second most dangerous in California (behind Oakland).
- In 2013, Stockton was ranked as the third least literate city in the U.S. in a study by Central Connecticut State University, with less than 17% of adults holding a college degree, and ABC.com ranked the city as the third least literate of all U.S. cities with a population of more than 250,000 behind Bakersfield, California, and Corpus Christi, Texas.
The most obese? Is that why Gardener titles his novel, Fat City?
Fat City is a very realistic, almost depressing story of two men who makes several attempts at hitting the big-time in the local boxing rings around northern California. When not being pummeled, Stockton offers them a meager living picking peaches or topping onions. Perhaps a valid question raised by the novel is whether stoop-labor or being knocked out in Modesto is the worst experience?
In an environment like Stockton presents, it’s hard to maintain relationships; hard to stay sober; hard to find yourself alone on a bus to a fight in Salt Lake City to save on expenses. The local boxing manager, who has trained and supported many now forgotten fighters as well as the two central characters in the novel, provides this insight:
They were all so vulnerable, their duration so desperately brief, that all he could do was go from on to another in quest of that youth who had all that the others lacked.
Read this book (even if you haven’t read Willian Kennedy yet … wait … read The Albany Cycle as soon as you finish Fat City).
If you get a chance, the 1972 adaptation of Fat City starring Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges is considered one of the best movies about boxing ever produced and one of John Huston’s best creations. Here is the trailer: