Monday, 21 January 2008

Bakelite and Uranium Monday: Lillian by Damon Runyon

by Edwin Hesselthwite

Guys And Dolls and Other Stories - (1932)
And what is it but luck that has Wilbur Willard all mulled up to a million, what with him having been sitting out a few seidels of Scotch with a friend by the name of Haggerty in an apartment over in Fifty-ninth Street? Because if Wilbur Willard is not mulled up he will see Lillian as nothing but a little black cat, and give her plenty of room, for everybody knows that black cats are terribly bad luck, even when they are only kittens.

Take out your whisky tumblers, loosen up your craps-wrist, and start up your Jelly Roll Morton records - this weeks BAUM is played out amongst the the disreputable bars of Broadway in the Twenties. In an effort to make sure BAUM doesn't become purely an SF ghetto, I thought week three was the time to throw in some noir imagery. First anthologised in 1931 in Runyon's first paperback, Lillian is 13 pages of New York fairy tale.

Lillian is pure Damon Runyon, concise, witty, with a twist at the end to make you grin, the story might be what you take away, but what you are reading Runyon for is the style and the setting. Runyon almost single handedly invented the imagery of the wrong side of the street New York, his frankly gorgeous prose takes you to a world inhabited by men called Horse Thief because "it is the consensus of public opinion from coast to coast that he may steel one if the opportunity presents", where men wear hats and running the odd scam is just part of the local character. Runyon's world is handed to you in first person, present tense historical, a bizarre narrative viewpoint that Runyon polishes to perfection. The narrator, a suspicious character but somewhat more conservative than his associates (his stories never show him getting his hands dirty), acts as cypher for the street's stories. Never one for short sentences, his prose drips with slang, invented words and so many commas that you need a paddle to drive them away. Take a look at the above quotation for assonance and alliteration - the repeating "ll" patterns amongst "w" alliterations show a real beauty in lyrical prose. The time and place he develops is so evocative there is even a word for it: Runyonesque.

So, Lillian. Lillian is a story about one man (he happens to be a singer, and a good one), his alcoholism, his ex-girlfriend and his cat, both of whom go by the name of Lillian. And from the first line of text the prose starts rolling along, carrying Willard from night club to flop house. He's not a villain, and despite the crime and grease the stories of Runyon are fairy tales of a sort. Hard men gambling their earnings to their victims, safe crackers responsible for minding the baby, Runyon's world is one written in brilliant colour...

And as you would expect of stories like this: such is the fiction, such is the man. Runyon was a professional sports journalist (hence the razor-sharp stylisation), who made a name for himself as one of Hearst newspapers (that Hearst) lead column writers, preferring to spend as much attention on writing about the people and the atmosphere as about the sports event he was attending. He proved so succesful that he became a lead journalist in all fields for Hearst. He lived and breathed Broadway, with numerous friends among the underbelly. His fiction has proved extremely suitable for film adaptation (most famously the musical Guys And Dolls), but noir is no longer as popular as it once was, and Runyon's fanbase has fallen off a little.

In writing this review I had intended to emphasise the story, singular... But I find that the works of Runyon are interwoven. Like Jorge Luis Borges or Ivo Andric these short stories should be savoured, they are rich enough to give you indegestion if eaten all at once, but I recommend them all. If you are the podcasting kind, I suggest wandering across to the Damon Runyon Theatre, a link site of dubious legality that contains links to 40's radio versions of some of his best shorts. Runyon's prose style is so distinctive that no one has ever really tried, or succeeded, in imitating it.

Hat? check... Type writer? check... Where's my whisky?

No comments: