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Damon Runyon story of the week #4: Romance in the Roaring Forties

July 15, 2014

Dave the Dude_Billy Perry

I’VE always thought that the two people on the cover of Runyon omnibus On Broadway (1975), who so brilliantly capture the style of the time, were Dave the Dude and Miss Billy Perry, two of the leading characters in ‘Romance in the Roaring Forties’.

The story is the second in the first published collection, More Than Somewhat (1937).

The Roaring Forties of the title refers to midtown Manhattan theatre and clubland, the playground of hacks, hoofers, hustlers, bootleggers and bouncers.

Dave the Dude, the tough bootlegger falls for “redheaded pancake” Miss Billy, who “is worth a few peeks, especially when she is out on the floor of Miss Missouri Martin’s Sixteen Hundred Club doing her tap dance.

The vibrant demi-monde of Midtown accommodates hard knocks like the Dave the bootlegger who is “off in the Modoc on a little run down to the Bahamas to get some goods for his business, such as Scotch and champagne,” when Miss Billy falls for Waldo.

Of course, Dave the Dude is not such a man as to stand for the young society reporter falling for Billy and attacks him in the Sixteen Hundred Club. As usual Runyon’s language crackles with character, they are never merely a gun or kicks, but the ‘old equaliser’ and ‘the leather’.

Dave reaches for the old equalizer to shoot Waldo Winchester, but it seems that Dave does not happen to have the old equalizer with him, not expecting to ave to shoot anybody this particular evening.

Dave walks over and starts to give Waldo Winchester the leather, which is considered customary in such cases.

Of course, affairs of the heart are never merely about love and attraction and are equally a transaction for many of the denizens of Broadway and the Roaring Forties.

Miss Missouri Martin cannot understand why Billy Perry has gone with Waldo, noting, “well I do not see a Simple Simon on your lean and linger.” (Diamond ring on her finger.)

The final act sees Dave the Dude kidnap Waldo Winchester, or as one of the bootlegger’s accomplices notes it, “taking him out for an airing.” Our narrator notes this is may be problematic for Waldo’s long term hopes for survival, “this is very bad news indeed, because when Dave the Dude takes a guy for an airing the guy very often does not come back.”

In the first twist, Dave has however grabbed Waldo merely to facilitate a surprise wedding for the love birds. In second twist, Waldo Winchester’s trapeze flying wife, Lola Sapola, throws a major spanner in the works of the wedding, when she slugs Dave the Dude twice and hoists Waldo over her shoulder and walks off with him.

This double twist or détournement, or what Runyon’s narrator might call “the old switcheroo” is masterful, and the description of the range of characters from the bootlegger to the squat trapeze artist, almost without parallel in humourous writing.

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