'Do you think he was ever young once?': Fat City review

James Oddy
18/08/2019 10:00pm

James Oddy pays tribute to 'Fat City' - a novel and film that rank among the very finest works of boxing fiction...

“Do you think he was ever young once?"

"No."

In life, we often don't know how good we've had something until it's long passed us by. That counts double for an athlete, and there's no finer athlete than a boxer. The sacrifices, the hard yards doing road work, the bust nose and ribs in some crummy gym after rounds of hard sparring.

Yet it brings about the glory; be it macro or micro. The world title win; or the successful combination landed, after years of work, which nobody else notices.

'Fat City', both the 1969 Leonard Garnder book and the 1972 film adaptation, are all about what happens to our lives when we aren't looking.

A while back I wrote about my favourite fighter, Jack Dempsey - well 'Fat City' is my favourite boxing fiction, for a myriad of reasons.

Unlike most boxing stories, fighting isn't a means of damnation or redemption in 'Fat City', it just is. Boxing ties together the lives of the barfly who never really was Billy Tully and the flawed but earnest teenager Ernie Mugner. They spar at the opening of the story and go their separate ways, scrabbling in the cracks of '50s Stockton, California to make a living. They work shit jobs, enter into relationships of desperation and generally get beat up whenever they lace up gloves.

The book is a short slice of melancholy beauty, tragedy only made bearable by the transcendent prose of its author. Gardner, a Stockton native, makes the city feels like a character in itself, living and breathing. And it’s not just Mugner and Tully who walk its streets and work its fields, either. Tully shacks up with fellow barfly Oma, a character who is partly funny and entirely tragic, whilst Mugner finds himself in an unfulfilling relationship with Faye, his teenage girlfriend who will soon give birth to the couple’s child. Both are in the orbit of shady managers, promoters and referees, all chasing their own version of ‘Fat City’, slang term for the good life, the perfect life. The unachievable life.

Gardner adapted his own book for the film version, directed by John Huston, the tone lightening a touch to turn the piece into a deadpan masterpiece, highlighting the delusions of almost every character of where they are in lives that are hurtling past them.

Part of the wave of introspective Hollywood films of the 70s, a young Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach fully inhabit the hapless protagonists. Bridges is self-consciously awkward, Keach completely oblivious to his awkwardness, as the broken noses and bruised egos of the book are made flesh and blood. Ramshackle, unglamorous and with a twinge of nostalgia, it’s one of the most neglected films to come out of the New Hollywood movement.

The film ends on a happier note, for Mugner, at least. He may make a more successful boxer, husband and father than Tully ever managed, although one who is far from perfect.

But the ending for Tully, after seeing some triumph, is brutal in its finality. We realise he has already lived the portion of his life which could be described as being 'Fat City'.

The long, lean years, are about to start. In fact, they started before we even met him.

'Fat City' is being screened as part of the Box Set film festival in November. For more details click here