Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Runyon on Broadway by Damon Runyon

Before I begin talking about this book specifically, let me explain why I’m reading a vintage 1975 British edition of a quintessentially American author in the first place.  The reason is the stupid copyright system currently in place; Runyon died in 1946 and did most of his writing in the 1930s, and the copyrights on his short stories will not expire (under the current regime) until 95 years after their publication date.  Therefore the last of his short stories will enter the public domain in 2041.  I’m not sure if this is intended to encourage Runyon to write more or what, but its practical effect is to prevent me from reading what I really want to read by him, namely a huge anthology of his entire short story output.  Yes, I know that book would be about the size of an encyclopedia but I’d still shell out for it.  And since nothing like that exists, I have to pick up these anthologies where I can find them, because Runyon was nothing if not a frequently collected and anthologized author, and hope that they contain a story that I haven’t seen before (since each editor has a slightly different idea about what constitutes the best of his output.)

Anyway, the book of Ecclesiastes states that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.  Runyon agreed with this, but pointed out that you should bet that way anyway since “all life is six to five against”.  That tells you pretty much what you need to know about Runyon, who was a newspaperman and a short story writer and apparently excelled at writing about baseball and horse racing, but especially the short story writing.

Runyon’s not obscure, exactly, as everyone’s heard of “Guys and Dolls” and some of his stories still show up in collections, but I think it’s a shame that he isn’t more widely read (but some of it may be his own fault, as explained further below).  I’m fond of short story as an art form and, to my mind, Runyon did it better than just about anyone else and certainly had his own inimitable style.  If you’re not familiar with it, he wrote in a bizarre slangy argot which completely eschews contractions and all verb tenses except the present.  It’s not so much dated as affected, since no one ever in the entire history of the world has spoken this way.  It contains enough Americanisms that this British anthology contained a glossary, but the editor pointed out in the introduction that you’d have to be pretty dense to not understand what he’s talking about, except possibly if you don’t know that a G is a thousand dollars and a C is a hundred.

Ecclesiastes also states that there’s nothing new under the sun, and the naïve reader, not realizing that ironic detachment wasn't invented in the 1990s, may be a little surprised at how sociopathic these stories can be, although almost always to comedic effect.  They don’t have any swearing and no explicit content besides a little bit of offhand kissing now and again, but man can they be cold blooded.  Witness this exchange between the nameless narrator and a character by the name of Jack O’Hearts discussing why Jack gunned down a member of the narrator’s singing quartet in “The Lily of St. Pierre”:

'I suppose,' he says, 'I owe you guys an apology for busting up your quartet when I toss those slugs at Louie the Lug?'
'Well,' I say, 'some considers it a dirty trick at that, Jack, but I figure you have a good reason, although I am wondering what it is.'
'Louie the Lug is no good,' Jack says.
Well, of course I know this much already, and so does everybody else in town for that matter, but I cannot figure what it has to do with Jack shooting off ears in this town for such a reason, or by and by there will be very few people left with ears.
'Let me tell you about Louie the Lug,' Jack O'Hearts says. 'You will see at once that my only mistake is I do not get my shots an inch to the left. I do not know what is the matter with me lately.'
'Maybe you are letting go too quick,' I say, very sympathetic, because I know how it annoys him to blow easy shots.

In another case a problem gets resolved by a dude getting knifed in the neck, an unfaithful wife ends up in a sack, a group of citizens hires a scary Italian hit man to take out a local thug, and in general there’s quite a lot of mayhem going on, none of which surprises or unduly puts out anyone.  In one story the narrator and one of his friends come across a loan shark who has been stabbed, and are very taken aback to see him this way – they figured that someone would shoot him and are “very angry to think that there are guys around who will use such instruments as a knife on anybody”.

All the Broadway stories are told from the first person perspective of an unnamed man who alleges that he’s no one in particular and that everyone and sundry considers him to be “just around”.  He also claims to have a nervous disposition and hate the company of desperadoes, which must cause him much distress as apparently that comprises most of his associates.  Nonetheless, he gets invited to swank parties and people make confessions to him all the time of all sorts of felonies, he’ll show up in the company of strong-arm men and although he never commits any crime of violence he manages to show up at a couple of robberies and swindles.  But mostly what happens is he’ll relate a tale from some associate of his, of whom he has a large number.  Surprisingly, some of them are even related to real events – “Lonely Hearts” is based on the true-life story of Belle Gunness, and there are other contemporary references in there that I’m sure sail right over my head.

Anyway, these stories are seriously funny in that classic New York deadpan way.  The narrator never judges and only criticizes those that aren't around or can't fight back - maybe explaining why everyone wants to tell him their stories.

They aren’t perfect by any means, though.  Although the slang dates these stories, they are so stylized that it’s not even really a problem; what really dates these works are some truly backwards social views that were unfortunately all too typical of the time.  There are some bright spots – the author mentions that he speaks some Yiddish and there are some minority characters spoken of favorably (or at least are not any more unfavorable than all the other lowlifes), and in one story the author points out that you shouldn’t refer to Jews or Italians by various ethnic slurs since they are by and large as good as anyone else (and also because some are likely to take offense and beat you up).  Unfortunately while this sort of tolerance also extends to Puerto Ricans it doesn’t exists to blacks, who are conspicuous by their rarity and in cruel, insulting dismissals when they do turn up.

Also Runyon’s gender relations are summed up by the idea that pretty much every woman is referred to as a “doll” without any exceptions that I can think of, and once they’re married their individual stories are more or less complete.  Although at least one widow does get revenge for her dead husband by drowning three guys simultaneously in the ocean, and another waits for a cad to become a success and then shoots him in the head.  The narrator is still somewhat coldly dismissive toward “dolls” and frankly I could see how women might be pretty turned off by it.  As a straight white guy it’s pretty easy for me to just say to overlook it and enjoy the humor value in the writing, but I don’t know, maybe some people just can’t get past it.  If it’s any consolation I’m not sure we’re strictly intended to take anything the narrator says at face value, since he’s pretty unreliable.

In any event, the only story in this collection which I don’t think I’d previously read was “Tight Shoes”, which was okay.  If I ever do get my complete Runyon set I’d probably find that I’d read the best ones already, but that’s all right, it would be entertaining enough.  At that.

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