|Leonard Gardner. Foto: Alissa Valles|
Novels have two primary sources: writers’ life experiences or their art experiences — although I suppose more religious writers might also make room for divine inspiration. While it’s popular in publicity to focus on the life experience that informs a book, a writer’s art experiences are just as responsible for how a story emerges from the imagination and eventually appears on the page. As Cormac McCarthy once said: “The ugly fact is books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”
Influential books come and go, but one notable survivor is Denis Johnson’s linked story collection, “Jesus’ Son,” published in 1992 and adored by two decades’ worth of writers, including myself, ever since I first read it as a 20-year-old college dropout. As I started writing, “Jesus’ Son” was an outsize influence, easily overwhelming all others, and might have ruined me as a writer if the right other books hadn’t eventually come along to mediate and complicate its hold on me.
Similarly, one of the most powerful influences Johnson claims is Leonard Gardner’s 1969 boxing novel “Fat City,” set in the rough streets of Stockton, Calif. In his introduction to a new edition of “Fat City,” published last month by New York Review Books Classics, Johnson says he first read the book at the age of 18 or 19, during the year he decided he “was actually going to have to become a writer” because he was “too emotionally crippled for real work.” That sentiment might be shared by Gardner’s main characters, Billy Tully, an aging, hard-drinking ex-boxer, and Ernie Munger, a young up-and-comer who has the physical gifts to be a great boxer but perhaps not the heart.
Rereading Johnson’s “Jesus’ Son” with “Fat City” nearby highlights the close relationship between the books in both style and substance, a link Johnson acknowledges. He recalls how he once discussed Gardner’s paragraphs with a fellow aspiring writer “the way couples sometimes reminisce about each moment of their falling in love,” and how when he arrived at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop he was astonished to meet other writers who “could quote ecstatically line after line of dialogue from the down-and-out souls of ‘Fat City.’ ”
“Admirers were everywhere,” Johnson writes — but then something happened (probably related to the book’s in-and-out-of-print existence) and the book lost much of its readership. It survives most prominently as part of the small canon of great boxing novels — and as the source for John Huston’s film adaptation, for which Gardner wrote the screenplay — and sadly few younger writers seem to have heard of the novel or of Gardner, who never published another. Even Johnson eventually fled the novel’s influence, although his flight was motivated by self-preservation: “I began to fear I’d never be able to write anything but imitations of it, so I swore it off.”
Yet Johnson also says that he later realized that “Leonard Gardner has something to say in every word I write.” And isn’t that for the best, if Gardner’s work led him to write “Jesus’ Son” and “Angels”? Who would want to be saved from an influence so powerful and productive?
Every so often, a book comes into your life that is perfect or at least perfect for you. It changes you in the reading. We all have life experiences that we cannot move past, memories we can’t let go and traumas that are forever present, but there’s a corresponding experience that sometimes happens when we encounter great literature, where a book becomes a place we have been, a life we’ve lived, as emotionally real as the places we’re from and the days we’re awake in the world. A memory lingers of its plot or its images or the structure of its sentences, and if you’re a writer, then one way to deal with that lingering is to try to write your way out.
“Jesus’ Son” was one such book for me, as “Fat City” was for Johnson, and while I don’t know what book served the same function for Gardner, I have no doubt that such a book exists. Every author I’ve ever met has a similar origin story. We would not be here without those books, and in that way being a writer is always about being a reader first.
In an interview shortly after the initial publication of “Fat City,” Gardner said that he started to write in part because he felt “death hovering about,” adding, “I wanted other people to know my spirit and my soul, because I knew I wasn’t going to be around much longer.”
But over 45 years later, Gardner is still alive. And Johnson is still alive. And I am still alive — and despite the lesser drama of my own life I’m sometimes as surprised by it as Johnson’s narrator in “Jesus’ Son,” who ends the story “Out on Bail” with the same stunned declaration. Of course, it wasn’t books alone that preserved us, either the ones we wrote or the ones we read, but surely those experiences helped, and even after we’re gone, the writers who came before us will still live on, not just in their own books but in the books we wrote because theirs were there to show us the way.
Matt Bell’s books include “Scrapper” and “In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.”