Editor's Note: The Spine is a new book column covering the literary scene of the Bay Area in reviews, interviews, guides, event previews and more. Guiding us is award-winning writer Leilani Clark, who's contributed to Mother Jones, Civil Eats, Time Magazine, the Rumpus and the North Bay Bohemian, in addition to KQED. Running biweekly, The Spine is your smart check-in on what's happening in the region's book world.
Review: 'Fat City'
Forty years before the city of Stockton filed for bankruptcy in 2008, Leonard Gardner wrote about another Stockton, one that was spiritually bankrupt and laden with depleted souls. Originally published in 1969, Gardner's gritty Fat City, about small-time boxers in 1950s Stockton, is reissued this month by New York Review of Books. Gardner appears at City Lights Books on Sept. 17.
Fat City opens with Billy Tully, a 29-year-old former boxer who moves from one rundown hotel to another, on a steep downward spiral after his wife leaves him. Tully once "had it all," but he no longer has much of anything. From the opening paragraphs, Stockton itself becomes a secondary character, and a place where dreams go to die:
From his window, [Billy] 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 low roofs of residences rising among leafless trees and absolutely flat streets. Along the sidewalk under his window, men passed between bars and liquor stores, cafes, secondhand stores and walk-up hotels.
Under the desperate, smothering and possibly corrupt tutelage of Ruben Luna, a boxing coach at the Lido Gym, Tully attempts a comeback.
Luna also takes on another protege, Ernie Munger, an 18-year-old who loves boxing, seeing it as a way to escape the mundane tedium of his life as a night shift service station worker in the San Joaquin delta. Munger shares the same negative impulses as Tuttle, but he's just starting out, and the darkness has not yet become so pronounced.
Munger is dating a girl named Faye Murdock; "He felt in her lips and arms a lonely employment of him," writes Gardner. Soon enough, after Ernie coerces her into having sex, Faye becomes pregnant, and the two get married. At one point, after his car becomes stuck in the mud, Ernie thinks: "He had to get home, had to get warm and dry and rested for his fight, but he was out here, wet in the bushes, stuck miles from town with a girl he might now never be able to get rid of." It's a cruel sentiment, and admittedly, the way women are written about in Fat City made me uncomfortable more often than not. Still, in married life, Ernie seems to find some kind of renewal. Though ambivalent about Faye as a girlfriend, he appears to turn a new leaf as she becomes an integral component of the very functioning of his life.
The novel's focus moves between Munger and Tuttle. Tuttle shuffles from job to job, from fry cook to field laborer, falling deeper into alcoholism with each passing day. A scene that has him thinning tomatoes for 90 cents a day is a brutal portrayal of the work of a day laborer:
"Shuffling sideways, his lefts crossing and uncrossing, the short hoe rising and falling, he labored on in the despondency of one condemned, the instrument of his torture held in his own hand. Of all the hated work he had ever done, this was torment beyond any almost beyond belief, and so it began to seem this was his future, that this was Work, which he had always tried to evade and would never escape now that his wife was gone and his career over."
Paragraphs like this are what make Fat City worth the read, despite dated characterizations and language around race and gender. In the book's introduction, novelist Denis Johnson writes about discovering the book when it was first published in the 1960s, and how it was "so precisely written and giving such value to its word that I felt I could almost read it with my fingers, like braille." Certainly, "precise" is a good way to describe Gardner's sentences that ring with a vibrant energy, especially in stark contrast to the lonely, joyless Billy Tuttle. You may not root for him, but you can definitely empathize with his entrance into a dark night of the soul.
Standout Book Events and Readings in September
Quiet Lightning has a reputation for hosting their 'Literary Mixtape' readings in unexpected places. They continue the tradition on Sept. 7 with a performance curated by Lauren Traetto and Charlie Getter, in honor of Kenneth Rexroth -- Bay Area poet, essayist, Pacifica Foundation co-founder, and "Godfather of the Beat Poets." Rexroth would likely approve of the tribute, seeing as he once wrote that live readings were essential to establishing "poetry as voice, not as printing." Ask a Rexroth fan and you're likely to hear that he produced some of his best work while living in a cabin at Devil's Gulch in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Thus, it's fitting that a new generation of poets and writers reproduces his energy in that same spot, under a canopy of trees and stars.
It wasn't until many years after her death in 1977 that Brazilian short story writer and novelist Clarice Lispector ascended to her rightful global stature as one of Brazil's best modern writers. Now, thanks to Bay Area-based translator Katrina Dodson and publishing house New Directions, Lispector's entire ouevre of 86 published short stories are available for the first time in English. On Sept. 8, Dodson celebrates the release of The Complete Short Stories of Clarice Lispector at Green Apple Books with readings by Stephen Beachy, Norma Cole, Anisse Gross, Micheline Aharonian Marcom and Namwali Serpell.
Dragonfish, the new mystery by Vu Tran, takes place in the shadowy gambling dens of Las Vegas. Apropos of the book's underground settings, City Lights is collaborating with W.W. Norton to produce Subterranean SF: Hardboiled Fiction With an Edge on Sept. 10. The evening of mystery and storytelling takes place at an undisclosed location; it's free, but in a clever touch, invitations can only be acquired in person at the front counter of City Lights (261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco). Ask for the black envelope, and you'll find directions to the mysterious venue and a starting time enclosed. To find out about ticket availability, call (415) 362-8193 (ext. 24). Nothing like an undisclosed location to get the blood pumping.
Franzen Fills the Hall
Copperfield's Books recently hosted Jonathan Franzen, on a tour promoting his new novel Purity, at Santa Rosa High School in Santa Rosa. The night started out promising with a good pre-reading analysis from the two lady bookworms seated directly behind me. "Franzen is a teensy bit misogynist, isn't he?" said one woman to the other. "Not Saul Bellow horrible, but..."
At that point Karen Green, wife of the late David Foster Wallace and a respected artist in her own right, walked by in search of a seat. Turns out that Green and Franzen are friends -- which is why, as he told Terri Gross this week, he has no interest in seeing the new film starring Jason Segal as DFW.
After a brief introduction, Franzen took the stage for a spirited and comedic reading from Purity. Franzen said he wished he had had the time to record the audio versions of his books, and that came as no surprise after seeing him read; it's enjoyable to see a writer so engaged in his work and deriving such pleasure from his dialogue.
Franzen then adjourned to a nearby old leather chair for a Q&A with Jane Ciabattari. He admitted early on to being in a "free-associative mood," a fact possibly related to the Diet Coke he drank just before hitting the stage. Whatever was going on, it was an entertaining couple of hours led by Franzen's down-to-earth nature -- which, as he might say, connects back to an egalitarian upbringing in the Midwest.
Franzen on setting key scenes from Purity in California:
"It was some combination of laziness and thrift. I'd been spending a lot of time in California, in Santa Cruz specifically. I write best about things that I love. I've had this deepening sense of love for Santa Cruz and the whole state, which is a surprise because of my East Coast background."
On the Internet:
"I don't have the internet in my office where I write. The first thing I do when I get home is spend two hours on email. I also get up early to check the baseball scores on the New York Times. If you are talking about social media, well, that has a second- and third-order affect on my life. I hear about it, but most things I hear aren't encouraging about the level of discourse, especially on Twitter. My private life isn't affected by some lie someone chooses to share about me on Twitter."
On bird-watching in Berlin:
"I became a birdwatcher 15 years ago, and Berlin is a great city for birds. Especially native European breeding birds which are now extinct in some countries because of agriculture."
On writing characters:
"The transference that allows me to write characters that are different from myself comes from love. I'll say it right here in Santa Rosa, I don't have a good African-American friend. I could never write an African-American character because I've never loved an African-American."
On the whole 'Adopting an Iraqi War Orphan' kerfuffle:
"I think I was just chatting with [Guardian culture writer] Emma Brockes, after the official interview. How I thought about adopting an orphan for about six weeks a few years ago, how I had walled myself off from life and started thinking maybe we made a mistake, maybe we should have some kids. Once Emma had filed the story, her editor went in and added paragraphs, and the headline writers came up with some headlines [Jonathan Franzen 'considered adopting an Iraqi war orphan to figure out young people'] they knew would get clicks and views. In that heated-up nonsense world of Twitter, that's what counts. I was laughing at myself, but there seems to be a large number of people who are humorless on Twitter."
On creativity and being called a genius:
"The brutal fact of being any kind of artist is that it's not always onward and higher... Fortunately, no one was calling me a genius when I was 25. I don't write for glory. I write because I was lucky enough to find something that I'm really good at."