Thursday, September 6, 2012

Guys And Dolls - Damon Runyon

Some time ago, presumably after enjoying something set in jazz age New York, I ordered 'Guys And Dolls' since when it's sat and gathered dust on the shelf but after 'Mother Finds A Body' I remembered I had it, located it, and as is the way of these things wish I'd read it months ago - if not years because as is also the way of these things the rest of Runyon's collected works seem to be hovering on the verge of being out of print. They're available, but they don't seem to be cheap.
I knew there was a musical version of 'Guys And Dolls' but not being a fan of the genre have never seen it so came to the book with no preconceptions and no idea of what to expect from Runyon generally. It was a good way to come to 'Guys And Dolls' and Runyon's very distinctive style. It's a collection of twenty short stories about some of the gamblers, bootleggers, and mobsters who congregated on Broadway. Their women (dolls) feature too, but this is basically a male world. The stories follow on from each other, all told by a nameless narrator but with the definite impression that it's the same voice each time. Many of the characters recur - like Dave the Dude and Miss Missouri Martin which helps link the collection into something that feels like a continuous narrative though actually these are all stand alone pieces - the danger of reading the lot together is that you find yourself picking up Runyon's style and risk sounding like a bad pastiche of an old gangster film in the process. 'More than somewhat' is the phrase I've had to fight using most often, it's not been easy.

Books in dialect aren't always appealing, and what Runyon uses is a sort of dialect - an elaborate concoction  of elaborately formal English mixed with slang. He also writes pretty much exclusively in the present tense. For about half a page I wondered what I'd let myself in for after which it was clear I was going to love it. Runyon's style already had a familiarity about it from any number of old films but this is where the penny dropped for me. It's a common language for characters who aren't always long off the boat - it brings New York to life as a melting pot of nationalities - that and it's funny. 

Generally all the stories are funny with a strong, if slightly skewed moral code behind them, but just when the reader is getting complacent about the company they're keeping Runyon will throw in a couple of corpses. It's quietly done and very effective - just enough to knock a bit of the glamour off of gangster life. 

In a stand out collection the story that really struck me was Dark Dolores - there is a radio play version here which isn't a patch on the book but interesting nonetheless. Dolores turns out to be a proper femme fatale and nowhere in this collection is Runyon better, or darker.  

1 comment:

  1. As a family we loved Guys& Dolls the musical. I had no idea it came from a short story, so thank you for this.