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Damon Runyon story of the week #3: Lonely Heart

July 1, 2014

I started writing about the short stories of American writer Damon Runyon a year or so ago before finishing the PhD thesis interrupted. Starting back again this week.

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ADAM Gopnik’s 2009 New Yorker article on Runyon pinpointed the opening paragraphs of ‘Lonely Heart’ as perfectly representative of the great author’s style: “the perpetual present tense, the world without conditional moods, the stilted, over-elaborate attempt at precision, and, above all, a way of life and a social class evoked purely through vernacular.”

It is true that ‘Lonely Heart’, the second story in Take It Easy (1938), Runyon’s third collection, perfectly encapsulates the structural and idiomatic tropes of his canon: the pointed, structured (morality) tales which move inevitably to what Frank Muir described as “professionally wrought endings.” At their centre is the unnamed narrator described wonderfully by Gopnik as an “exquisitist” – the loquacious dandy able to blend in with the high up and low down of Broadway society.

‘Lonely Heart’ tells the tale of the wonderfully named Nicely-Nicely Jones, the well fed but poorly performing gambler who follows the races and associates with “the low characters of the turf.” When he is not chasing the horses, Nicely-Nicely is a chancer, “what he does for a living is the best he can, which is an occupation that is greatly overcrowded at all times along Broadway.”

One of those beautiful opening paragraphs captures the loose, approximate vernacular voice of the narrator and Runyon’s precision in painting instantly recognisable pen portraits:

Well, Nicely-Nicely is greatly discouraged when he sees this price against him, because he is personally a chalk eater when it comes to price, a chalk eater being a character who always plays the short-priced favorites, and he can see that such a long shot as he is has very little chance to win. In fact, he is so discouraged that he does not even feel like taking a little of the price against him to show. 

Nicely-Nicely, so named because “any time anyone asks him how he is feeling, or how things are going with him, he always says nicely, nicely, in a very pleasant tone of voice,” responds to a lonely hearts advert and finds himself hitched-up with the equally wonderfully named Widow Crumb.

At her rural New Jersey farm, Nicely-Nicely, no stranger to good food, is fed plump by the mysterious Widow, who is “as big and raw boned as a first baseman, but she is by no means a crow.”

After Nicely-Nicely becomes life insured with double endemnity, he finds out that he is the latest in a string of husbands for the Widow Crumb, each of whom has had a mysterious demise, including one who checked out with the aid of a Black Widow spider. Troubled by his findings, it is noted, “if there is one thing that Nicely-Nicely despises, it is insects. Furthermore he does not approve of hanging, or of dropping weights on people.”

The story moves to a wonderful denouement where we find out how Nicely-Nicely escaped the murderous clutches of the insurance fraudster Widow Crumb. Of course, we have always known that he did escape because he is telling his story to the narrator at the outset. Sharply plotted, with a hefty dollop of intensely black humour, it is one of the stand-out examples of Runyon’s craft and remains an example for modern day television writers everywhere.

The precision and economy of the writing in ‘Lonely Heart’ evinces a dexterity and guile with narrative that may soon be lost with the advent of box set culture and a world increasingly affected by the inane brevity of social media.

You can hear the Damon Runyon Theatre radio dramatisation of ‘Lonley Heart’ over on archive.org. It is number 23 in the list of episodes.

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