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February 12, 2009

Guys and Dolls: The Short Stories of Damon Runyon ****

**** Guys and Dolls: The Short Stories of Damon Runyon, Damon Runyon, 1992

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

It is a 9 to 5 shot all week and twice on Sunday that the moniker Damon Runyon escapes your attention all these years. But it is even money that many citizens in this town have seen a show doped up from his stories.

I discovered Runyon as a teenager. (Also Robert Benchley, but that is another story.) It was a rainy afternoon and I was out of reading material. I scavenged through the bookshelves, hoping a treasure would suddenly appear. I didn’t have much hope, as I had combed through these shelves many times before. While my childhood home was not devoid of fiction, it certainly was not stocked with countless tomes awaiting the eager reader. It was quite unlike my own home in later years, where hundreds of novels and short story collections line the walls in practically every genre but romance. (And there are a few of those, but I will deny it and call you a liar if you repeat it to anyone.)

In many previous searches I had passed over The Best of Runyon. It was an old, slim volume from the 40s with yellowed pages in a dark blue binding stuck between an almanac and Hebrew dictionary and didn’t look like it could possibly be interesting. (Yes, yes, I know about the judging a book by its cover rule, but one can’t always follow every rule, can one?)

One day in desperation, all other options exhausted, I pulled it out and gave it a wheeze. And discovered the magical world of Broadway gangsters during Prohibition.

Runyon’s stories are narrated by a character that doesn’t figure much into the action. He’s the guy who is always there to hear or see the story, but is not a player. In his own words “Nobody pays any attention to me, because I am known to one and all as a guy who is just around . . .” (Blood Pressure). His low profile is intentional. “. . . I do not ask any questions, because when a guy goes around asking questions in this town people may get the idea he is such a guy as wishes to find things out.” (The Lily of St. Pierre)

But he is the confidant of many a rough character who figures into the action plenty, and then some. These characters include mob hit men, bootleggers, cardsharps, pool sharps, drama critics, safe crackers, bookies, horse players, touts, crap shooters, drunks, chorus girls, strippers, bubble dancers and Salvation Army officers to name a few. And occasionally he finds himself dragged along into the thick of the action, sometimes to avoid offending a character such as might take offense if he refuses the invitation, sometimes because he has been partaking of a few hot Tom and Jerrys or some needled beer and his curiosity overcomes his better judgment.

It took me a while to get hip to all the slang. A gun can be a heater, a piece, a rod, a Betsy or a John Roscoe. Scalpers sell duckets to the football games. And deciphering the money poses its own challenge. Some things are obvious. Two G’s is $2,000 and 5 C’s is $500. A deuce is $2 and a finnif is $5, but what is a sawbuck? Luckily a clue is buried in Hold ‘Em, Yale! It’s $10. When the narrator and Solly borrow a pound note in All Horse Players Die Broke, using a Betsy as collateral, and are left with a deuce each after spending the odd dollar on breakfast, some math reveals that they borrowed $5. And when he takes his deuce and runs it up to 22 slugs on a 10-to-1 shot, it is easy to see a slug is a dollar.

Which brings us to one of the charms of Runyon’s work, the dialect. As the editor of this book, William Kennedy, notes, “This Runyon merriment was, and is, chiefly an achievement of language – the language of gamblers, hoodlums, chorus girls, and cops, that he acquired by listening, then used in his stories and is therefore credited with inventing. It is a nonesuch argot, and he uses it like no other writer who came before or after him.”

The dialog is priceless; the narratives never drag. It’s a mistake to skip even a single sentence. Even physical descriptions of characters are entertaining. Here are a few examples:

This cat I am going to tell you about is a very small cat, and in fact it is only a few weeks old, consequently it is really nothing but an infant cat. To tell the truth, it is just a kitten. – Johnny One-Eye
He is a very big guy with several chins and very funny feet, which is why he is called Feet. These feet are extra large feet, even for a big guy, and Dave the Dude says Feet wears violin cases for shoes. Of course this is not true, because Feet cannot get either of his feet into a violin case, unless it is a case for a very large violin, such as a cello. – Tight Shoes
Knowing Nicely-Nicely Jones, I am prepared to wager all the money I can possibly raise that he can outeat anything that walks on two legs. In fact, I will take a chance on Nicely-Nicely against anything on four legs, except maybe an elephant, and at that he may give the elephant a photo finish. . . . This Nicely-Nicely Jones is a character who is maybe five feet eight inches tall, and about five feet nine inches wide, and when he is in good shape he will weigh upward of two hundred and eighty pounds. He is a horse player by trade, and eating is really just a hobby, but he is undoubtedly a wonderful eater even when he is not hungry. – A Piece of Pie

There are many collections of Runyon stories, from the original books to latter-day compilations such as Guys and Dolls, not to be confused with the Broadway show and movie of the same name, based on the story The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown. This collection of 30 stories has some of my favorites, including A Piece of Pie and Lonely Hearts, although it does omit others of my favorites, such as The Snatching of Bookie Bob and Tight Shoes. The first paragraph in the introduction describes the selection process for this book:

“There’s really only one question to ask about Damon Runyon: Is he, or isn’t he, back in town? We all know he’s back on Broadway, ever since the spring of 1992, when the remarkable revival of Guys and Dolls opened. But there is also something else going on. I have been approached twice in the past month about writing a movie about his private life, something in which I have a minus-twenty-seven-percent interest; and now here comes Al Silverman (Viking out of Penguin) saying he has snatched up the rights to 125 of Runyon’s short stories that have been lying doggo for a number of years and is looking for somebody to handicap two and a half dozen of them and see if there is enough left in the old guy to justify a wager that he can still wow them not only on Broadway but also in Albany.”

With all the attention The Sopranos is getting, the time is ripe for a Damon Runyon comeback. If you’ve never read Damon Runyon, this book is a good place to start. If you have read Damon Runyon, then you know it’s worth going back and reading the classics in this book.

Some Runyon short story collections:

Some movies based on Damon Runyon stories:

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