Mr. Gardner recovers his poise immediately. “I used to work out in the Lido Gym many years ago,” he says.
“Oh, really?” the man says. “They had a gym here?”
“We’re trying to see if the old back door is still there,” Mr. Gardner says. “Do you have any idea what goes on in the basement now? That’s where the gym was.”
“It’s completely cleared out,” the man says.
“I’ll be darned,” Mr. Gardner says. “Tell me, what goes on there now?”
“Nothing,” the man says.
The next day Mr. Gardner takes me to the Fat City Boxing Club, run by his old friend Yaqui Lopez, a former light-heavyweight title contender and member of the World Boxing Hall of Fame. They met around the time of the Huston film — Mr. Lopez played Jeff Bridges’s sparring partner — and stayed friends.
The gym, inside a former car dealership, is deafening. The sound of pounding speed bags mixes with Mexican music blaring over a sound system. Two young boxers in face guards and body padding spar in an elevated ring. Mr. Lopez, 65, tall and incredibly fit, has fists the size of my head. The walls are covered with framed posters from his bouts in places like Atlantic City, Copenhagen and Rome.
Mr. Lopez started the gym a few years ago to give underprivileged Stockton youth a place to channel their energy. We watch the two fighters in the ring. “They’re punching each other around pretty well,” Mr. Gardner says.
“I can hear the punches,” I say.
“It’s all part of training,” he says. “The idea is, you get used to punches coming at you, and if they hit you, you don’t flinch. You’re not even supposed to blink, because you might get hit with another one that you wouldn’t see coming. You’re supposed to take a punch with your eyes open. And maybe look for your opening to counter with a punch of your own. If you didn’t box very much, you might be punch-shy and flinch.”
“Which of these guys is better?” I ask.
“They’re both doing well,” he says. “The bigger guy might have more ability, but the skinny guy is coping with the problems pretty well. The skinny guy gets hit, and he instantly shoots a punch back. He’s not getting intimidated. Slick foot work.”
Back in the car, we move across town and wind up at the Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium, a Greek Revival structure built in 1925 with two golden bears flanking the entrance. This is where Tully and Lucero had their climactic bout. The vast, antique interior has a giant stage beneath an elaborate proscenium arch. Purple and gold banners drape from the ceiling. Bass-heavy disco pounds through a rack of speakers.
Behind the banners we can see the old scoreboard and balcony seats. Mr. Gardner swivels his neck. “They’d have the ring right here in the center,” he says. “And a whole lot of, I guess, folding chairs.
“I went to a lot of fights here in the old days,” Mr. Gardner says. “I saw Yaqui Lopez fight here.”
He continues to search in the recesses of the ceiling beyond the drapes. “I’m looking for the tassel,” he says. “When Billy Tully gets knocked down, he’s looking at a big tassel hanging down from the center of the building.”
“He looked up at the lights and the brown and blue gathered drapery way up at the apex of the ceiling where a giant gold tassel hung, the whole scene shattered by a zigzag diagonal line, like a crack in a window. He did not remember rising, or how he got through the round.”
All we could see was a thick, bare cable. “They got rid of the tassel,” Mr. Gardner says.
After the “Fat City” film came out, Mr. Gardner adapted one of his short stories, “Christ Has Returned to Earth and Preaches Here Nightly,” into a screenplay called “Valentino Returns.” The film was briefly released in 1989. He wrote and worked as a producer for the TV show “NYPD Blue.” “Sweeter Than Sugar,” a piece of boxing journalism about the first matchup between Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard in 1980, is in the 2011 Modern Library anthology “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing.”
“Why didn’t you want to write another novel?” I ask at one point.
“I’m sure I wanted to,” he says gruffly.
Later, he says, “ I never did just pour it out. I was frequently getting involved in writing something. But for all the years that went by, it should have became a bigger pile of stuff.”
And even later, he grouses about people always asking him why he never wrote another novel.
But revisiting Stockton seemed to be having a subterranean effect. “I do have a dream,” he says. “I don’t want to go on at length talking about my next novel because it’s a long way off and who knows if I’ll ever do it. But a lot of it would be set here. So I need to stay in touch with the old town.”
We decide to take another crack at the Lido Gym. Those Moorish columns along the front are intact, if weathered and chipped. Up a flight of steps we stop at a front desk behind thick plexiglass. A group of men, sitting around talking, stop and stare. After intense negotiations and promises not to sue, a manager agrees to take us to the basement.
“In a ring under a ceiling of exposed joists, wiring, water and sewage pipes, a Negro was shadowboxing in the light of fluorescent tubes. Three men in street clothes, one bald, one with deeply furrowed cheeks, the third wearing a houndstooth-check hat with a narrow upturned brim, all turned their faces toward the door.”
The ceiling is low, a maze of beams, pipes and wires. The concrete floor is stained with water. The walls are bare, except for some graffiti. A carbon monoxide detector beeps. Just as we had been forewarned, there’s nothing here. Nothing whatsoever.
We walk around and our footsteps echo, tracking the water across dry spots. “The ring was in the center,” Mr. Gardner says. “The speed bags were against the wall. I think the shower room was there under the sidewalk. To get to the lockers, you went through the shower room, and the drain was always faulty and so you were sort of wading through an inch or two of water, walking on our heels with the front part of our shoes out of the water.”
His voice is subdued, maybe a little pained. “I would have thought there would at least be an old punching bag in the corner, or something,” he says.
As barren and empty as the room is, I can see it all. The men, the lights, the damp and the thump of glove on skin. Or is it just the powerful imprint of the novel? As I stand here, it occurs to me that this is the essence of fiction: the liminal space between the tangible world outside and the inner layout of the mind, the antechambers of reality that usher us into the imagination. This is “Fat City.” I’ve made it.
I turn to say something to Mr. Gardner, but he is preoccupied. He stands with his head bent, leaning slightly on one foot and his fedora cocked forward on his head. He is holding a pocket notebook that I didn’t even know he was carrying, and he is writing.