Monday, February 28, 2011

Damon Runyon is hard-boiled more than somewhat

Contractions run rampant in my newspaper; we could use a man like Damon Runyon again.

But the writer whose stories of Prohibition-era Broadway inspired Guys and Dolls was more than just colorful nicknames and eccentric grammar, and even that grammar may have had a point.

I'm giving Runyon another try on account of a blonde doll who is putting her hands on her hips and giving me the eye and saying: "Big Pete! I am reading Damon Runyon's stories, and I am liking them, and I am very much wanting to know what you intend to do about this."

The story she suggested begins like this:
"One night I am standing in front of Mindy's restaurant on Broadway, thinking of practically nothing whatever, when all of a sudden I feel a very terrible pain in my left foot."
and ends— well, the ending, has the same off-beat grammar and syntax and rough good humor, but it's a whole lot darker. And that's why Runyon, at least some of him, still makes it as a crime writer today. But why take my word for it? You can read the story, "Sense of Humor," yourself.

And then you can take a look at a contemporary Irish crime writer's homage to Runyon.

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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26 Comments:

Anonymous Michael A. Gonzales said...

Wonderful post on a great writer. He's still such a major influence on urban crime writers.

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. That ending to "Sense of Humor" made me realize that Runyon may be about more than just nostalgia.

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Paul D. Brazill said...

Very good call. I put him in a little list that I did over at Mulholland Books recently.

http://www.mulhollandbooks.com/2011/02/22/ten-crime-books-to-help-cure-your-hangover/

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Dana King said...

Having quite a sense of humor myself, I very much enjoyed that story. It did not seem as though the ending would be tricky until it was. I will have to read more of this Runyon character.

March 01, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Don't see any off-beat grammar in that sentence. Explain?

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paul, as a service to a loyal customer, here's your list in handy, clickable form. It's a hell of a list. I was delighted to find Top Ten included.

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, it's a twist ending that at the same time is in perfect character with everything that had gone before. It also makes Runyon a kind of spiritual ancestor of any number of today's crime writers.

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., Runyon's characteristic use of progressive aspect and present tense are distinctive. (So is the absence of contractions, though a stickler would call that a matter of diction rather than grammar.)

March 01, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Ah, yes. See, there we go again. If you don't follow Elmore Leonard's rules, you're not much of a writer.

Nothing at all is wrong with the sentence. Any number of things are wrong with Elmore Leonard, among them a style so devoid of character and detail as to amount to canned English. Alas, too many books are written that way these days.

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

I became a fan of Damon Runyon long ago. When I was a kid, I listened to DAMON RUNYON THEATER on the radio. The characters didn't talk like any others, and I loved it.

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No one said anything was wrong with the sentence. In any case, I'd think an old-fashioned English teacher would be likelier than Elmore Leonard to criticize it.

Hmm, do you suppose that their liberation from rules of grammar and diction (while at the same time implicitly acknowledging them, but more on that later) is part of the appeal of Runyon's prose?

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, that's it. No one talked like Runyon's characters. That's why I suspect that even people who have never read Runyon can imitate his distinctive rhythms and word choices.

Did Damon Runyon Theater present exclusively dramatizations of Runyon stories? It probably took skilled actors to have fun delivering the lines without going over the top. And I wonder how real Runyon would sound stripped of narration and reduced to dialogue. (One commenter on my Runyon post a couple of years ago called Guys and Dolls a wonderful musical but a pale imitation of Runyon, so that doesn't count.)

I listened to Frank Sinatra singing "Luck Be a Lady" over the weekend. All those fine songs must have supplied what the narration did in the Runyon stories. I'll have to probe that great repository of cultural history, the Internet, to see if any clips of Damon Runyon Theater are available.

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Peter, here's a link to 16 .mp3 files of the radio shows.

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're a true gent. Thanks.

March 01, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I still don't follow that "liberation from the rules of grammar and diction" bit. Maybe it's that I read "rules" as referring to "correct" English. Leonard's rules really have more to do with style. Neither Runyon nor Leonard break any grammar or diction rules. Leonard's style isn't wrong. It's just bland and overly simple. When you tell people that they must never use certain elements of the language (adverbs, progressive, past perfect, forms of "to be", and so forth), you have handicapped them from creating a style of their own. I actually use all of those, plus mention weather whenever it suits me, and have been known to have no body until the middle of the book. Don't fence me in!

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rules means "correct" English, and for Runyon. that's the point. Can't you picture readers bedeviled by those rules heaving sighs of relief when they read Runyon and find the rules bent more than somewhat?

March 01, 2011  
Blogger Bill Crider said...

If you listen to any of the shows that the Linkmeister pointed you to, I think you'll find that the shows are played absolutely straight with nobody ever going over the top. Very entertaining stuff.

March 02, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Reread the sentence. Still nothing wrong, or even bent.

This is present tense narration. Maybe the "one night", more common in past tense narrative (One night I was standing . . .), throws the reader off. What you have is a very conscious taking the reader into the middle of an action without preamble. Some readers detest present tense. My agent made me rewrite a monster of a novel once because it was in the present tense. I have regretted it.

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bill, I was also surprised by the script liberties that some of the shows take.

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

It occurs to me I use present tense for past events fairly often. Describing an imaginary event:

"So I'm driving along, minding my own business, when I notice a car with a flashing blue light behind me."

Show me I'm wrong, publishers!

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Then there's what a former colleague of mine calls the "sports present":

"If the umpire doesn't blow (had not blown) the call, Jimenez pitches (would have pitched) a perfect game."

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Not a bad name at all, especially with its use of the conditional.

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wonder if the sports present has roots in Runyon and other sportswriters of his era. Though I lack evidence to back this up, I always got the feeling that it was more characteristic of older baseball managers, the kind sportswriters call baseball lifers, than of younger ones or products of a later time. I can't picture Tony LaRussa using it, for example.

March 02, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., you're right about "one night." It might throw some readers off. For others, it's just a Runyon marker.

In fact, as either the introduction or an essay observes in the collection I'm now reading, the stories are set in the past despite their use of the present tense. That makes Runyon a special case.

March 02, 2011  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

And is that a copy editor's nightmare?

A friend of mine who is a copy editor gets quite irked with tense contradictions.

March 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It works in Runyon, and I regard the sports present with a condescending indulgence. It's part of the tradition of how baseball managers talk, or used to talk. I don't know how old the tradition is or when it started. Perhaps the present tense is an unconscious attempt to project one's self back into the immediacy of the athletic contest.

March 15, 2011  

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