His wit was hard-boiled
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.
It’s key that Runyon came out of the West, with a cool yet astonished eye for the urban wonderland that he found in New York. He’d found his own frontier and pounced upon Broadway like a prospector jumping a claim. The first of his Great White Way fictions, “Romance in the Roaring Forties,” was published in the June 1929 issue of Cosmopolitan, and thereafter these stories poured out in a steady stream, mostly in Collier’s. Runyon wrote about gamblers, bookies, race-track denizens, loan sharks, wanna-be big shots, chorus girls and dancers, establishing a repertory group of characters -- Harry the Horse, Apple Annie, Dave the Dude, Nathan Detroit, Izzy Cheesecake, Madame La Gimp, Joe the Joker and Regret, the Horse-Player -- whose usually luckless struggles reflected the changing world of the New York streets as boom turned to bust in the Depression.
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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“The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945" by Saul Friedlander (HarperPerennial)
Saul Friedlander was born in Prague and spent his childhood in Nazi-occupied France, but his life’s work has been to sublimate autobiography into the deepest scholarship, arguing, with close and immensely moving detail, that anti-Semitic ideology was at the heart of everything the Nazis did. Friedlander brings personal stories to life through diaries and letters. At the same time, although rich in anecdote, his immense history shows how administrative cruelty turned into a campaign of mass murder that the rest of Europe failed for too long to confront. This book, a masterful and riveting synthesis, won a Pulitzer Prize.
“The Long March” by Sun Shuyun (Anchor)
Sun Shuyun retraces the route taken by Mao Tse Tung and 200,000 Communist soldiers who retreated thousands of miles to the barren north of their country during the Chinese Civil War of 1934. After the Communists achieved power, official history transformed the story of this trek into a propaganda epic of how victory came from defeat -- like the British at Dunkirk. Sun confronts the myth, interviewing survivors of the march and villagers who witnessed it. The facile iconography of Mao is thoroughly debunked, and a story no less impressive emerges. History is made to stand on its head - but in a quiet and powerful way.
“Brainwash” by Dominic Streatfeild (Picador)
Streatfeild tells the Kafkaesque story of the history of interrogation, indoctrination and brain warfare, taking us from Cold War efforts to reprogram the mind with exotic blends of drugs and sensory deprivation and right into the present day with the blunter methods employed at Abu Ghraib. The “Frankenstein” science may change, but the cruel psychology of torture and manipulation stays the same. “There is very little that is new,” he writes, although his animated style makes this subject feel vivid, and scary.
“California, America’s High-Stakes Experiment” by Peter Schrag (University of California)
This new edition of Schrag’s reasoned and passionate essay about California opens with a consideration of how Arnold Schwarzenegger has transformed the terms of his governorship. “But the more important element of the new Schwarzenegger course was the broader recognition -- implicit if not declared -- that if things didn’t work out in California, chances were they wouldn’t work out very well in the rest of the nation either,” Schrag writes, and it’s in a dynamic consideration of the good and ill that the Golden State implies for the American dream that the strength and challenge of this book resides. Where do we want to go, in terms of economics, education, politics? These are the questions that Schrag, a columnist at the Sacramento Bee, constantly addresses.
“Unforgiving Years” by Victor Serge (New York Review Book Classics)
Serge, who has been championed by Susan Sontag and many others, was born in Brussels in 1899 to émigré Russians who’d fled the Czar. He became a political activist, was jailed and arrived in Russia in 1919 to support the Bolshevik Revolution. He rose high in the Comintern before falling foul of Stalin and finding himself in jail and then exile. He was steamrolled by history, and out of this experience he crafted a series of extraordinary memoirs and novels. “Unforgiving Years,” here translated into English for the first time by Richard Greeman, tells the story of two revolutionaries, D and his friend Daria, as they approach, endure and survive World War II. This is downbeat and dangerous mise-en-scene that Alan Furst has turned into hit novels -- but written for real by a man who was there.
“Northline” by Willy Vlautin (HarperPerennial)
“Jimmy Bodie stood watching, drinking a beer while the girl sat near the video games, drunk. She was in her early twenties, an average-looking girl, thin with black hair and blue eyes,” writes Willy Vlautin at the beginning of his second novel, a mournful and compelling story of working-class lives in Las Vegas and Reno. Vlautin leads the country rock band Richmond Fontaine, and this book comes with a CD soundtrack, but his fiction succeeds on its own. His heroine, Allison Johnson, is frequently drunk and frequently wounded, but we completely believe in the proud and sad and dangerous people she encounters. Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff come to mind rather than Nick Cave, which isn’t to knock Nick Cave, only to say that Vlautin has a literary voice that feels more grounded.
“Epitaph of a Small Winner” by Machado de Assis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
This novel, published in the later 19th century, belongs to a line of narrative buffoonery that stretches from Laurence Sterne and “Tristram Shandy” to Samuel Beckett, García Márquez and Salman Rushdie. A wealthy Brazilian, with enchanting digressions and sly humor, tells the story of his unsuccessful life from the grave. “A life is not a plot,” as Susan Sontag notes in her introduction, but de Assis, and his narrator, certainly have a subject: human injustice and folly. These snapshots are exuberant and hilarious while dealing with idleness and futility; the disjunction gives this novel a unique and unforgettable appeal.
“This Night’s Foul Work” by Fred Vargas (Penguin)
Commissaire Adamsberg and his team investigate the death of two drug dealers found with their throats slit on the outskirts of Paris. Then a stag is found with its heart cut out, and the intuitive Adamsberg opens a grave. He teams with a female pathologist, believing himself on the trail of a killer he thinks is a woman. Vargas’ policiers seem to be getting weirder and weirder, but they’re still wonderful, filled with amazing twists and written with a lightness and grace of which most crime writers can only dream.
“God’s Trombones -- Seven Negro Sermons in Verse” by James Weldon Johnson (Penguin)
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“The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine” by Mark Yakich (Penguin)
There are a lot of overtly political poems in this book, poems about Iraq and suicide bombers and embedded journalists and Leni Riefenstahl, and each one is written with a freshness and urgency that smacks you in the eye and heart. “Whoever duct-taped kitty with the C-4 must’ve / Thought himself a genius. And who wouldn’t / Send an animal to do a mortal’s job? / By mortar lake and budding sky, kitty stood there. . . . Shrapnel brushed by / And plastic bags rippled instead of flags. She / swayed back and forth at the entrance to the hotel,” writes Yakich in “Patriot Acts.” His poems might rant and curse, but they’re filled too with narrative tension, fizzing language and a sly humor. He’s got a unique voice that combines knowing moral savvy with a sense of outraged innocence: “Don’t toss kitty into the recycling / Bin because she didn’t complete her mission.”
Richard Rayner is the author of many books, including “The Associates” and “The Devil’s Wind: A Novel.” Paperback Writers appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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