Time has not been kind to Damon Runyon. The 20 stories in "Romance in the Roaring Forties" have been collected in the clear hope of reviving interest in this once-popular writer, but unfortunately they have exactly the opposite effect. Without exception they are period pieces, set in and about a Broadway that long ago vanished, and written in a prose that strives desperately for clever authenticity but manages to achieve only archness. The only real interest they now hold is as evidence of what sort of fiction found a wide readership in the mass-circulation magazines for which Runyon wrote in the 1930s and '40s.
Runyon was a nomadic journalist who found his way to New York before World War I and made a name for himself as a tough-guy sportswriter, principally for Hearst's New York American. He liked to hang out with the Broadway crowd -- show people, drifters, bootleggers, mobsters -- and as he expanded from sports to features and other general-interest writing, he made these people central characters in his little journalistic dramas. By 1929 he had turned journalism into fiction, writing what Tom Clark calls "a new kind of first-person narrative short story (5,000 words) with a classic twist ending, celebrating the guys and dolls of Broadway, describing their exploits in a purified present-tense tongue that was a very careful echo of their own, all to be carried off with a certain 'half-boob air' . . . of humorous but knowing detachment."
Clark, author of "The World of Damon Runyon," strives mightily to imbue Runyon's fiction with a weight that it simply cannot hold. He argues that Runyon's stories have never gotten their just critical deserts because they were immensely popular, because they dealt with gangsters and because "the irony in the stories continues to waft over the heads of many of his academic readers." About all he can make is a negative case, however, for there simply is no positive case in favor of Runyon's fiction; it is stiff, mannered, indifferently plotted, sentimental and formulaic.
All of the stories are narrated by an unnamed fellow whose position in them is anything but clear. He does not appear to be a mobster, but he is repeatedly drawn into mob antics; he is not in show business, but he is welcome in the company of theater people; he is not a journalist, but he hangs around newspaper types and drops well-known newspaper names. He is, in other words, an uncertain foundation upon which to construct the stories, all of which would be better had Runyon used an omniscient, third-person narrator.
Then there is the matter of the narrator's voice. Runyon clearly means it to be knowing and ironic, but he succeeds only in making it sound like that of a small-time wiseacre: "One night a guy by the name of Bill Corum, who is one of these sport scribes, gives me a Chinee for a fight at Madison Square Garden, a Chinee being a ducket with holes punched in it like old-fashioned Chink money, to show that it is a free ducket, and the reason I am explaining to you how I get this ducket is because I do not wish anybody to think I am ever simple enough to pay out my own potatoes for a ducket to a fight, even if I have any potatoes." There may have been a day when this was regarded as worldly and amusing, but that day was long, long ago.
As that excerpt indicates, Runyon was something less than a hard-boiled portrayer of underworld and show-biz life. If anything, his underworld is prettified, in the Disney manner; the thugs and the whores have hearts of gold, just about everybody has a cute nickname (Brandy Bottle Bates, Harry the Horse, Sorrowful, Hot Horse Herbie), very little real harm is ever done, and often a sweet little girl reduces all the big brave crooks to shivers and quivers. To make matters all the more synthetic, each story comes equipped with a trick ending, in the O. Henry manner.
The one good thing to be said of these stories is that from them -- principally from "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" -- the musical comedy "Guys and Dolls" was adapted. That show is an enduring delight, and for providing the inspiration for it Damon Runyon certainly deserves our thanks. But though the musical will live for years, the stories are now nothing more than relics of a lost era in American magazine publishing that was not, perhaps, quite as glorious as we now imagine it to have been.