By Ray Schultz
If ever a writer was good at engaging readers, it was Damon Runyon. He held them from the first sentence to the last, in any format, and he would do that online if he were alive today.
Who’re we talking about? Damon Runyon, born in 1880 in Manhattan, Kansas, died in 1946 on Manhattan Island. He was, to start with, a great reporter and columnist, as proven by his coverage—on deadline— from the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray murder trial in 1927. (The pair murdered Snyder’s husband).
“Right back to old Father Adam, the original, and perhaps the loudest ‘squawker’ among mankind against women, went Henry Judd Gray in telling how and why he lent his hand to the butchery of Albert Snyder.
“She-she-she-she-she-she-she-she. That was the burden of the bloody song of the little corset salesman as read out in the packed court room in Long Island City yesterday.
“She-she-she-she-she-she. ‘Twas an echo from across the ages and old familiar echo, at that. It was the same ‘squawk’ of Brother Man whenever and wherever he is in a jam, that was first framed in the words:
“’She gave me of the tree, and I did eat.’”
Then there was his sportswriting. Many sportswriters wrote poems in those days, but it’s hard to top Runyon’s paean to the jockey Earl Sande:
Say, have they turned the pages
Back to the past once more?
Back to the racin’ ages
An’ a Derby out of the yore?
Say, don’t tell me I’m daffy
Ain’t that the same ol’ grin?
Why, it’s that handy
Guy named Sande,
Bootin’ a winner in!”
But it’s his fiction that has earned Runyon a small but real place in American literature. He wrote maybe 200 short stories, all in the present tense, creating memorable (if not admirable) characters like Big Jule, Nicely Nicely Jones, Harry the Horse and Sam the Gonoph.
The Snatching of Bookie Bob
Take his story, “The Snatching of Bookie Bob.” Bookie Bob is kidnapped by three thugs named Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John. He agrees to book their horse racing bets to pass time, and they end up owing him double the amount of the ransom.
Yes, I know—it’s the same basic plot as O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.” But “Bookie Bob” is darker—and funnier—in its tale of Depression-era betrayal.
Consider the way Runyon starts the story, and at the same time explains why snatching is in vogue:
“Now it comes on the spring of 1931, after a long hard winter, and times are very tough indeed, what with the stock market going all to pieces, and banks busting right and left, and the law getting very nasty about this and that, and one thing and another, and many citizens of this town are compelled to do the best they can.
“There is very little scratch anywhere and along Broadway many citizens are wearing their last year’s clothes and have practically nothing to bet on the races or anything else, and it is a condition that will touch anybody’s heart.”
So the three wiseguys start nabbing people for ransom, and “much fresh scratch comes into circulation, which is very good for the merchants,” the narrator writes. He notes, however, that “you cannot snatch just anybody”—you need a reliable finger.
“The finger guy must know the guy he fingers has plenty of ready scratch to begin with, and he must also know that this party is such a party as it not apt to make much disturbance about being snatched, such as telling the gendarmes.”
It also pays to know if the victim “does not care to have matches run up and down the bottom of his feet, which often happens to parties who are snatched and who do not seem to wish to settle their bill promptly, because many parties are very ticklish on the bottom of their feet, especially if the matches are lit.”
Now what is Runyon really doing here but describing a process? He could just as well be explaining a best practice in B2B.
Butch Minds the Baby
Then there’s “Butch Minds the Baby,” an even more perfect blending of style and content. Butch, a reformed hoodlum, is offered big money to break open a safe, but his wife is at a wake, so he has no choice but to take his infant son on the job.
The narrator, “a little dopey” from needled beer, tags along, although he feels that cracking a safe with a baby present is “very dishonorable.” (Who’s this narrator? As he says in another story, “Nobody pays any attention to me, because I am known to one and all as a guy who is just around.” This is the story, by the way, that opens with the memorable line: “One evening along about seven o’clock I am sitting in Mindy’s restaurant putting on the gefilte fish, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in come three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, and Spanish John”).
The scenes follow with impeccable timing. Butch heats up milk in a saucepan next to the safe, Little Isadore muzzles the baby to keep him quiet, Butch blows the safe open and the police arrive on the scene.
By this time, young John Ignatius is “beating his own best record for squalling,” the narrator writes, “and as we go walking along Big Butch says to me like this:
“‘I dast not run,’ he says, ‘because if any coppers see me running they will start popping at me and maybe hit John Ignatius Junior, and besides running will joggle the milk up in him and make him sick. My old lady always warns me never to joggle John Ignatius Junior when he is full of milk.’
“‘Well, Butch,’ I say, ‘there is no milk in me, and I do not care if I am joggled up, so if you do not mind, I will start doing a piece of running at the next corner.’”
The story is based less on a plot than a premise. But the tone is pitch-perfect. And Runyon sustains it to the very end.
Mastery of His Language
I could go on. I could tell you about Blond Maurice, who in 1936 is placed in quicklime by “certain parties who do not wish him well.” (He shows up later eating cheese blintzes in Mindy’s). I could mention Rusty Charley, who is known to carry a gun “and sometimes to shoot people down as dead as door-nails with it if he does not like the way they wear their hats—and Rusty Charley is very critical of hats.”
But why bother? You can read about these characters—and many more—in a fairly recent Runyon collection from Penguin.
Runyon has been criticized for making hoodlums loveable. But he was the first to admit that he was a “hired Hessian on the typewriter.” He wrote to entertain people, and he succeeded, for at least a dozen of his stories were made into movies, and another couple used for the musical “Guys and Dolls.”
Were there better, more profound writers around? Sure. But as novelist William Kennedy wrote, “Far more serious writers than Runyon have fallen on their faces and other parts because they lacked what he had: a love and mastery of his language, a playful use of its idiosyncrasies.”