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Damon Runyon story of the week: An Introduction

August 21, 2012

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: At no point in any of the posts over the next year will I ever lapse into the self conscious present tense of Runyon’s anonymous narrator, because, I venture many potatoes at 6 to 5 that every writer who scribes a review of the great man always writes like he is speaking to his readers like he is standing outside Mindy’s Restaurant on Broadway talking to Dave the Dude or Harry the Horse or any of the characters who like to enjoy the gefilte fish of that establishment.

THE thing about Damon Runyon is he’s the best, most distinctive  story teller of the 20th Century, settle down James Joyce fans. Weekly from next week, I am going to write about a story from the collection On Broadway.

The reason he is the best story teller of the 20th Century is, just like James Joyce, he draws on a deep tradition going back to the Greek myths and biblical tales. Just like Joyce, he uses a modernist jumble of cut-up story telling techniques and a bewildering variety of idioms and styles. He differs from Joyce because he is immensely readable while being no less profound and whole lot less conceited.

His parables of life take in the same spread of degenerate gamblers and cuckolded wives and husbands as Joyce. It’s just that he goes further, writing with great sureness about bandits and gangsters, safe breakers and bootleggers, dodgy boxing managers, out of town naifs and dancing girls.

There is a brilliant 2009 New Yorker article on Runyon by Adam Gopnik here. Although, Gopnik does erroneously call Mindy’s restaurant, one of the places in the stories, as Lindy’s.

Runyon plays with a variety of styles and genres: there are Christmas stories and whodunnits, sports stories and love stories. All jump with energy and bristle with tension and reader engagement.

They evoke New York in the 1920s-1930s in a way that few novels of the same time do. The wonder is that he did it in a few collections of short stories that were written, for the most part, in the present tense by an omniscient, omnipresent anonymous narrator who is present at all manner of criminality, from illegal gambling dens to safe breaking raids.

His portrayals of the people who follow horse race meetings across the eastern seaboard of the time are hugely evocative and ring of deep authenticity.

The characterisation is wonderful. In one of the earliest stories in On Broadway, gangster Dave the Dude and club owner Miss Missouri Martin are beautiful cases in point. They are denizens of the underworld, people not usually portrayed with human faces, but people equally capable of both immense, sometimes criminal, cunning as well as deep, sentimental romanticism.

The gangsters and rogues are also wonderfully drawn. Butch the safe breaker who brings his baby son out on one last blag, Rusty Charley, the rough arsed gangster who cheats in illegal gambling games who can knock out a horse with one punch and Harry the Horse the Brooklyn hard man are the best drawn.

There are hard luck characters of immense pathos. Dream Street Rose, ‘the short, thick set, square looking old doll with a square looking pan,’ who is an alcoholic set adrift in New York after a terrible tragedy, Madame La Gimp, the Spanish dancer fallen on hard times and who has lost her daughter back at home and Little Miss Marker, the bright little girl left to the bookie Sorrowful as a marker for a bad bet.

The tales are often resolved in a feel good fashion and are sometimes little more shaggy dog stories resolved with lovely punchlines of comedic misdirection, see the Death Row story ‘Cemetery Bait’ for a beautifully constructed example of that. They can also be very, very dark, murderous tales. The story ‘A Sense of Humour’ is as dark as anything produced, it is a dark morality tale.

They are folk tales out of the oral tradition, stories that lack a need for a moral compass, they are Greek in spirit. As EC Bentley says in his introduction to Runyon’s second Broadway collection:

One scholarly writer pointed out a detail which had escaped myself- Runyon’s debt to Homer […] So true is it that we stand on the shoulders of those that have essayed the height before us.

And there it is, from Homer to Joyce and Manhattan in the 1930s in a few simple strides.

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