I’m actually writing this a couple of days before Christmas. Things in the kitchen are questionable right now. The brioche for the cinnomin rolls is reluctant to rise, and the crust for the quiche shrank in the pan. Oh, well, that’s why I do these things ahead of time, so if something goes really wrong there’s time to implement Plan B.
But that’s not what I was going to post about.
What I was really going to post about is Damon Runyon.
Damon Runyon is one of those authors I’ve always heard about but never read. Partly this is because unlike Hemingway, Steinbeck and Fitzgerald, Runyon is not one of the 20th century writers one meets in school. Partly because I’d always assumed I’d gotten all the Runyon I needed watching Guys and Dolls.
This changed a little while ago when I picked up a new idea. This particular idea is for a mystery set on the vaudeville circuit in the 1920s. I love vaudeville and the theater in general, so I was delighted to finally get hold of an idea that would make use of the trivia I’ve stored up over the years. However, no matter how much you do know, when sorting out a new idea there’s a lot of additional reading to be done. I started with a new book about the con-man extrordinare Titanic Thompson (good book, BTW, fast read, interesting look at the life of an unrepentant con-artist) who was the model for Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls. It got me to thinking that while I’m making a list of writings from the 20s that I might read for research and leavening for the new project, I could do worse than adding in some Runyon
I was a little worried however. I have a love/hate relationship with Guys and Dolls. All this brilliant music, all this fun dialogue, and it’s still got a plot that hinges on the desire of every woman to be married no how low the stinker she’s set her cap for. This makes me just plain cringe. There was also the worry that Runyon’s language would come off as cliche after a 70 to 80 year remove.
Turns out I needn’t have worried. Runyon is the guy who invented what we think of as the gangster patois and the over-the-top understatement, and it still reads fresh and funny and completely entertaining.
There are not noir tales of gangsters and grit. In fact, I’d call Runyon the anti-Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald wrote stories about high-life characters who are far worse and more pathetic than you’d imagine. Runyon writes stories about low-life characters who are generally better and luckier than you’d believe.
Not that you actually believe a Runyon story. That’s not the point. Runyon did hang around with the Wise Guys of Broadway, back in the day. But I don’t for a minute believe these stories are anything but lightly spiced by what he actually saw. These are light, sentimental stories; Broadway through rose colored glasses. But that’s okay, because what they also are is a world of fun. They are stories of Fools and Villains, Heart of Gold types, and other comical misfits that could only happen in the wee hours of the morning in New York. Most of the time you know what’s coming, but you settle in and enjoy the ride anyway, because of the descriptions, the rambling, inimintable, dead-pan descriptions of the people and their circumstances are such a delight.
Not all the stories are predicatable, though, and some of the stuff is stronger and more refreshing than I expected, including “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.” This story is, mostly, the basis for “Guys and Dolls.” So, I had to kind of take a deep breath before diving into the short story. I am pleased to report that the story is very different, and very worth a read. There’s a story about faith, chance and choice here that is completely missing from the movie, and Sarah Brown herself is a much more no-nonsense woman than any that showed on on the screen adaptation.
So, if you’re finding the holiday break dragging a bit, I recommend a trip back to Runyon’s Broadway as a delightful getaway among the guys and dolls who never made it into the musical. You’ll be surprised who’s there, and you’ll be glad you came.