Nobody says and maybe they should, of Leonard Gardner, ‘he coulda been a contender’. Or ‘he retired undefeated’ or ‘there are no second acts in American lives’. There is a comeback kid who defies the cliché by not coming back. It is an awful fate to hit the highest point of your oeuvre on your first book and then fall back into self imitation subsequently. Gardner declined that shame. Fat City is an American classic and it is quite acceptable to have gone some rounds with Ernesto Hemingway and then knocked him on his ass.
He lived in the Hotel Coma—named perhaps for some founder of the town, some California explorer or pioneer, or for some long-deceased Italian immigrant who founded only the hotel itself. Whoever it commemorated, the hotel was a poor monument, and Billy Tully had no intention of staying on. His clean laundry he continued to put back in his suitcase on the dresser, ready to be hurried away to better lodgings. He had lived in five hotels in the year and a half since his wife had left him. From his window he looked out on the stunted skyline of Stockton—a city of eighty thousand surrounded by the sloughs, rivers and fertile fields of the San Joaquin River delta—a view of business buildings, church spires, chimneys, water towers, gas tanks and the low roofs of residences rising among leafless trees between absolutely flat streets. Along the sidewalk under his window, men passed between bars and liquor stores, cafes, secondhand stores and walk-up hotels. Pigeons the color of the street pecked in the gutters, flew between buildings, marched along ledges and cooed on Tully's sill. His room was high and narrow.
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.
It’s not so much noir as grey, the colour of Tully’s underwear. If there’s hope it’s a rumour. He goes to the fields to top onions.
There was a continuous thumping in the buckets. The stooped forms inched in an uneven Hue, hke a wave, across the field, their progress measured by the squat, upright sacks they left behind. In the air was a faint drone of tractors, hardly audible above the hum that had been in Tully's ears since his first army bouts a decade past.
He scrabbled on under the arc of the sun, cutting and tossing, onion tops flying, the knife fastened to his hand by draining blisters. Knees sore, he squatted, stood, crouched, sat, and knelt again and, belching a stinging taste of bile, dragged himself through the morning. By noon he had sweated himself sober. Covered with grime, he waddled into the bus with his sandwiches and an onion.
Going to his old trainer and getting a few easy marks to ease his way back was a plan. He was good until he was let down and robbed off a title in Mexico City by crooks. He resents Ruben Luna but he knows him:
Confidence, Ruben Luna believed, was the indispensable ingredient of success, and he had it in abundance —as much faith in his destiny as in the athletes he trained. In his own years of battling he had had doubts which at times became periods of terror. With a broken jaw wired into silence, he had sucked liquid meals through a tube, wondering if he were even sane. After a severe body beating and a bloody urination in the dressing room, he had wondered if the big fights and large sums he had thought would be coming but never came could be worth what he had already endured. But now Ruben's will was Hke a pure and unwavering light that burned even in his sleep. It was more a fatahstic optimism than determination, and though he was not immune to anxiety over his boxers, he felt he was immune to despair. Limited no longer by his own capacities, he had an odds advantage that he had never had as a competitor. He knew he could last. But his fighters were less dependable. Some trained one day and laid off two, fought once and quit, lost their timing, came back, struggled into condition,gasped and missed and were beaten, or won several bouts and got married, or moved, or were drafted, joined the navy or went to jail, were bleeders, suffered headaches, saw double or broke their hands. There had been so many who found they were not fighters at all, and there were others who without explanation had simply ceased to appear at the gym and were never seen or heard about again by Ruben, though once in a while a forgotten face returned briefly in a dream and he went on addressing instructions to it as though the intervening years had never been.