WE think we know Damon Runyon, and we might think we're pretty jaded about him, but a fat new anthology, " 'Guys and Dolls' and Other Writings" (Penguin: 636 pp., $18 paper), introduced by Pete Hamill and edited and annotated by Cornell professor Daniel R. Schwarz, makes us see afresh a writer whose hard-bitten and ironic point of view prefigures the fictional worlds of "The Godfather" and "The Sopranos." There's much more to Runyon than Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra looking sharp and talking cute in the 1955 film version of "Guys and Dolls."
Alfred Damon Runyan was born in 1880 in Manhattan, Kan., and he grew up in Pueblo, Colo., a tough town where his father was a printer. At 14, he enlisted in the Army and fought in the Spanish-American War. After his return he was a reporter in Colorado and then San Francisco, before, at the invitation of William Randolph Hearst, he left for that more famous Manhattan, the one in New York, whose demimonde he would in time immortalize. "He was a tight-lipped man, a listener, a watcher," said his friend and protégé Gene Fowler. "He seemed alone, always, everywhere, even when in the midst of a crowd, typing rapidly, steadily, with the tempo of a woodpecker." This remorseless writing animal died in 1946, his name having long since been compressed, and changed, through a series of typographical errors, to the familiar byline of Damon Runyon. Here was a guy who owed everything to print.
Runyon invented an arch but richly comic lingo, writing always in the present tense and borrowing slang from jazz, vaudeville, sport and the criminal underworlds of both New York and the West. The beginning of "It Comes Up Mud" is typical:
"Personally I never criticize Miss Beulah Beauregard for breaking her engagement to Little Alfie, because from what she tells me she becomes engaged to him under false pretenses, and I do not approve of guys using false pretenses on dolls, except, course, when nothing else will do."
And here, from "Broadway Complex":
"Now Miss Florentine Fayette is a tall, slim, black-haired doll, and so beautiful she is practically untrue, but she has a kisser that never seems to relax, and furthermore she never seems much interested in anything whatever. In fact, if Miss Florentine Fayette's papa does not have so many cucumbers, I will say she is slightly dumb, but for all I know it may be against the law to say a doll whose papa has all these cucumbers is dumb."
It's irresistible, delicious. British critics often bracket Runyon with P.G. Wodehouse -- apt in one way. Both are masters of language and timing, crafting prose that teems with life and an absurd, meandering humor that is always brought under control with a sharp snap by the end of the sentence. But Runyon is a darker, more worldly writer. In "Dream Street Rose," for instance, "a short, thick-set, square-looking old doll," down on her luck in the Depression, describes how she has exacted pitiless revenge on the man who exploited her 35 years ago when her mother ran a Colorado rooming house for men working in the smelters in Pueblo.
In his editor notes to this collection, Schwarz describes this bleak little fable as a noir, and he hints that Runyon was influenced by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Certainly the story feels hard-boiled, but more like the great and now forgotten early 1930s New York gangster writer Benjamin Appel rather than Chandler, who -- it seems to me, at least -- drew upon Runyon, not the other way round, particularly as a liberating inspiration for phrase and metaphor.
Schwarz is right, though, to stress that Runyon took the side of the underdog, an inclination that informed both his fiction and his work as a crime and sports reporter. A hefty chunk of Runyon's reportage is included here. By the mid-1920s, Runyon was perhaps the most famous newspaperman in America, and he lugged his Underwood to some of the era's biggest trials, including those that arose from the Lindbergh kidnapping and Ruth Snyder's slaying of her husband (the inspiration for James M. Cain's "Double Indemnity").
Runyon hobnobbed with gangsters and called murder "the main event." He pounded out copy for the Senate investigation into J.P. Morgan's business empire and Al Capone's 1931 trial for income tax evasion. Unsurprisingly, Runyon liked Morgan less than he liked Capone, and since much of the Capone case centered upon where Al got his money and how he spent it, and since the subject of money, and the strange routes that money takes, was especially thrilling for Runyon, he really threw himself into the business of what Uncle Sam said Capone owed him.
"The testimony revealed Al as rather a busy and shrewd shopper. While he is usually pictured as a ruthless gang chieftain, he was today presented as a domesticated sort of a chap going around buying furniture, and silverware, and rugs, and knickknacks of one kind and another for the household," Runyon wrote, as though the trial were a movie whose absurd comedy he felt privileged to observe. Capone, though a thrifty shopper when it came to home décor, was more extravagant when it came to personal adornment. 'Oscar De Feo, of Marshall Field's, recalled making over twenty suits for Al and a few topcoats, along with suits for four or five of Al's friends at a total cost of $3,600."
Runyon, were he writing today, would find equal entertainment in the weird demise of Phil Spector or the violent shenanigans of gangster rap. He had not only comic verve but real observational genius, which is why, as this handsome anthology amply demonstrates, he still speaks to us.
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