- Damon Runyon: A Life by Jimmy Breslin
Hodder, 410 pp, £17.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 340 57034 2
Damon Runyon is famous for shunning the past tense, as in: ‘I am going to take you back a matter of four or five years ago to an August afternoon ... On this day I am talking about, the Lemon Drop Kid is looking for business.’ Even when one of his stories has been told, is over, and he permits his protagonists a little late-night deconstruction, there is still this unrelenting attachment to the present. ‘“Well, Mrs B,” he says. “You almost get a good break when old Doc News drops dead after you stake his wife to the poison because it looks as if you have her where she can never wriggle off no matter what she says. But,” Ambrose says, “my friend Mrs News is cute enough to seek my advice and counsel.” ’ This speech belongs in the past tense, but the author is determined not to put it there. By this stage in Runyon’s career, to have done so would have brought professional dishonour.
Runyon did not always write this way, but once he had learned how to, he never – so to speak – looked back. According to one commentator, there is in Runyon’s New York tales ‘only one single instance of a verb in the past tense [and] I will lay six to five that it is nothing but a misprint.’ Jimmy Breslin reckons that Runyon caught the habit either from Samuel Taylor Coleridge or from listening to hoodlums testifying evasively at court hearings. A more likely bet is that he caught it from Ring Lardner, from whom he picked up several other hard-boiled/soft-centred tricks of style. The fact is, though, that the ploy does fit snugly with the kind of stories Runyon liked to tell, stories whose charm insists that we are not often invited to reflect on origins and consequences. In Runyon’s wide-eyed gangland, everyone talks as if he has been taken by surprise. A counsel for the defence can usually plead that his client was obliged to act before he had a chance to think.
In most of Runyon’s tales of Broadway low-life in the Twenties, the narrator has no past and not much of a present – or perhaps, like his characters, he has more past than he cares to remember and a future that is, to say the least, uncertain. He is a Mr X, and he functions as a warm-up man for the main action. He can be found most nights in Mindy’s Restaurant ‘putting on the gefillte fish, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in come these three parties from Brooklyn’. The parties have names like Harry the Horse or Nick the Greek or Johnny Uptown and they are mostly small or medium-time bad guys: thieves, extortionists, kidnappers, racketeers or killers. The word ‘killer’, however, is a word that’s never used. These men with funny names also have funny names for what they do. They speak of giving their foes ‘a little tattooing’, ‘a boff over the pimple’, or of whipping out ‘the old equaliser’ in order to aim some ‘whangity-whang-whang at Louie the Lug’ or at whoever has been foolish enough to make a party feel ‘somewhat disturbed’ or ‘very much excited’. The narrator does not object to such euphemising because equalisers usually equalise each other – well, almost usually. Like the papers say, innocent bystanders can now and then get caught in other people’s crossfire. But then, what’s innocent about bystanding at a time like this?