Blog about some recent reading

I have a leak in my roof and I’ve canceled my Thanksgiving plans and I’m not sure what to do about the soft coup, but, books—

Top to bottom:

I’m still scratching my head about Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini (translated by Jessica Sequeira). Sneaky strange stuff, prose-poem stuff like elastic concrete, or concrete elastic.

Started Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers last night (on the late David Berman’s recommendation) and really digging it so far. Set at the end of the Vietnam War, it seems to be about a heroin deal going sideways. Maybe the CIA is involved, maybe not. Everyone’s a bit grimy. I guess it comes from the Hemingway tree, or really, maybe, the Stephen Crane tree—Denis Johnson’s tree, Leonard Gardner’s tree, Raymond Carver’s tree, etc. Reminds me a lot of Johnson’s Angels (and, to some extent, Tree of Smoke), but also Russell Banks’s 1985 novel Continental Drift, which I read years ago, hated, and still remember—which means I think it must be a really good novel?

I wrote Top to bottom up at the top, but Leonard Gardner’s Fat City is in line with Stone’s Dog Soldiers—Stone’s losers, I guess. The book is about an “old” boxer (he’s not thirty) on the way out of his career and a young boxer on the rise. (Rise here is a really suspect term.) I really can’t believe I was 41 when I read this. I should’ve read it at 20. I wouldn’t have understood it the same way, of course, and the biggest sincerest compliment I can pin on the novel is that I would’ve loved it at 20 but I know that I would’ve appreciated it more 20 years later. There are plenty of novels that I read and think, Hmm, would’ve loved this years ago, but now, nah, but Fat City is wonderful. It’s a boxing story, sure, but it’s really a book about bodies breaking down, aging, getting stuck in dreams and fantasies. Gardner’s only novel (!) is simultaneously mock-tragic and real tragic, pathetic and moving, and very very moving. Great stuff.

John Brunner’s big fat dystopian novel Stand on Zanzibar frankly overwhelmed me and then sorta underwhelmed me there at the end. This sci-fi classic is a big weird shaggy dog that managed to predict the future in all kinds of ways, and it’s mean and funny, but it’s also bloated and booming, the kind of novel that sucks all the air out of the room. It’s several dozen essays dressed up as sci-fi adventure—not a bad deal in and of itself—but there’s very little space left for the reader.

David Ohle’s lean mean mutant Motorman is a dystopia carved from stranger stuff. Ohle’s cult novel leaves plenty of room for the reader to wonder and wander around in. Abject, spare, funny, and depressing, Motorman sputters and jerks on its own nightmare logic. Its hapless hero Moldenke anti-quests through an artificial world, tumbling occasionally into strange moments of agency, but mostly lost and unillusioned in a broken universe. I loved it.

After I finished it, I made a list with no name of books that are “like” Motorman in their “unalikeness” to other books:

 

Leonard Gardner’s Fat City (Book acquired, 12 Nov. 2020)

I’ve been wanting to read Leonard Gardner’s Fat City for a while, and how could I pass up this Vintage Contemporaries edition?

I think I first heard of the book years ago in conjunction with its influence on Denis Johnson. In Salon, in 1996, Johnson wrote, or gushed, really–

Exactly which year of the 1960s the book came out, I can’t remember, but I remember well which year of my lifetime it was — I was discovering that it wasn’t a joke anymore, I was actually going to have to become a writer, I was too emotionally crippled for real work, there wasn’t anything else I could do — I was 18 or 19. Newsweek reviewed “Fat City,” a first novel by Leonard Gardner, in a tone that seemed to drop the usual hype — “It’s good. It really is.” I wanted to get a review like that.

I got the book and read about two Stockton, California boxers who live far outside the boxing myth and deep in the sorrow and beauty of human life, 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.

The stories of Ernie Munger, a young fighter with frail but nevertheless burning hopes, and Billy Tully, an older pug with bad luck in and out of the ring, parallel one another through the book. Though the two men hardly meet, the tale blends the perspective on them until they seem to chart a single life of missteps and baffled love, Ernie its youth and Tully its future. I wanted to write a book like that.

My neighbor across the road, also a young literary hopeful, felt the same. We talked about every paragraph of “Fat City” one by one and over and over, the way couples sometimes reminisce about each moment of their falling in love.

And like most youngsters in the throes, I assumed I was among the very few humans who’d ever felt this way. In the next few years, studying at the Writer’s Workshop in Iowa City, I was astonished every time I met a young writer who could quote esctatically line after line of dialogue from the down-and-out souls of “Fat City,” the men and women seeking love, a bit of comfort, even glory — but never forgiveness — in the heat and dust of central California. Admirers were everywhere.

My friend across the road saw Gardner in a drugstore in California once, recognized him from his jacket photo. He was looking at a boxing magazine. “Are you Leonard Gardner?” my friend asked. “You must be a writer,” Gardner said, and went back to the magazine. I made him tell the story a thousand times.

Between the ages of 19 and 25 I studied Leonard Gardner’s book so closely that I began to fear I’d never be able to write anything but imitations of it, so I swore it off.

I haven’t owned a copy of “Fat City” in over 20 years, but I recently learned that the University of California Press is bringing out an edition this November, and I’ve ordered one.

When I was about 34 (the same age Gardner was when he published his), my first novel came out. About a year later I borrowed “Fat City” from the library and read it. I could see immediately that 10 years’ exile hadn’t saved me from the influence of its perfection — I’d taught myself to write in Gardner’s style, though not as well. And now, many years later, it’s still true: Leonard Gardner has something to say in every word I write.

I just finished John Brunner’s big baggy shaggy dog of a sci-fi novel, Stand on Zanzibar (reading David Ohle’s spare abject wild dystopian prose-poem Motorman, in between Zanzibar chunks)—I think Fat City might be a nice reset.