Monday, July 09, 2007
One Book and beyond ...
Back in May, the Rap Sheet launched its One Book Project, soliciting more than 100 novelists, critics, and fans to choose one crime/mystery/thriller novel that was “most unjustly overlooked, criminally forgotten, or underappreciated over the years.” My choice was David Bottoms’ terrific 1987 novel ANY COLD JORDAN (one of only two he wrote, the second being EASTER WEEKEND, which is just as good. These days, Bottoms is better known as Georgia’s poet laureate).
ANY COLD JORDAN wasn’t a difficult choice. It’s beautifully written and all too well fits the definition of “unjustly overlooked.” But it also started me thinking about the other books that would have made my shortlist. So over the next few weeks, I’m going to sing the praises of a few of them. Some are in print, some aren’t, but all are great in their own way and worth seeking out.
Leonard’s Gardner’s 1969 novel FAT CITY would have been my first choice for the One Book Project, except it’s not really a crime novel. What it is is a beautifully etched portrait of the underside of American life, as told through the stories of two men in Stockton, Calif., in the late 1950s. Billy Tully is a punch-drunk fighter who fears his career and his life are over – at age 29. Ernie Munger is an 18-year-old service station attendant with a pregnant girlfriend and not much of a future. He’s a fighter too, an up and comer with some skill, who nonetheless soon discovers he’s in way over his head.
Billy and Ernie meet in the first chapter – during an impromptu sparring bout at a YMCA – and then go their separate ways for much of the novel. Gardner follows their painful arcs through alcoholism, domestic strife and just pure bad luck. It’s not even that they’re trying to escape their grim existence – it’s almost as if they’re denying to themselves that any other way of life exists. The novel is populated by those who were once full of promise, people who keep making bad decisions and then punish themselves – sometimes brutally – for making them. But they just can’t seem to stop.
Gardner, a Stockton native, fills the novel with sparse but evocative descriptions of his hometown, and the bleak vista that awaits those who live there. At times, it’s like a Tom Waits song come to life, vivid and almost lyrical in its bluntness. And every sentence is just about perfect.
Here’s Gardner’s description of Tully’s transient hotel room, from the very first page of the novel:
“His shade was tattered, his light bulb dim, and his neighbors all seemed to have lung trouble.”
Seventeen words and you’re there, in that room, in that world. By the time this short novel comes to a close, nothing earthshaking has happened to its protagonists, no sudden glimpses of clarity or last-chance shots at redemption. Instead, they just keep on keeping on. When we last see Tully, he’s in yet another hotel, finally surrendering the little ambition he has left, until “hearing the sounds of the street, he drifted in the darkness with his loss.”
FAT CITY is maybe best known for the excellent 1972 film John Huston made from it, starring Stacy Keach as Tully and Jeff Bridges as Ernie, with a screenplay by Gardner. It’s been in and out of print over the years and is currently available as part of the University of California Press’ “California Fiction” series (which also includes the late A.I. Bezzerides’ THIEVES MARKET, which became the Jules Dassin film THIEVES HIGHWAY). FAT CITY may not be a crime novel, but it’s as noir as they come.