Fat City by Leonard Gardner

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When life is drudgery - backbreaking, grim, rancid, unfair, lonely, and without end – only dreams can sustain us.  The worse the drudgery, the more improbable the dreams.  The lottery ticket that will get you out of debt for good; the youthful feeling of invincibility returning; the woman you lost walking back through the door; the title fight you will win against all odds.

Fat City is a novel about working class boxers Billy Tully and Ernie Munger in 1950s Stockton, California, whose dreams of victory inside and outside the ring propel them down parallel paths.  Both endure the cruelties of itinerant farming, alcoholism, lost love, flophouses, homelessness, poverty, concussions, and humiliation by clinging to the hope that a victory, maybe two, will expunge it all, render their present misfortunes into a humorous anecdote they can tell their future set of equally successful friends.

Gardner has an ear for dialogue and an eye for characters who derive spiritual sustenance from dreams that will never come true.  For every ESPN 30 for 30 episode about a rags-to-riches athlete, there are ten-thousand Billy Tullys and Ernie Mungers, men with some talent who find minor success before losing grip of their dreams and being cast back down to the lives of drudgery they've never actually escaped, without end, and now without hope.