What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Treasury
of Damon Runyon

Field-Tested by James Finn Garner

in Fennville, Michigan

Summer reading should be, by definition, that which Fall-Winter-Spring reading is not. And since my cold weather reading tends toward the current, the now, the wow-pow!, I set aside Summer to enjoy the things no one is talking about. At my family cottage, I have a personal rule to read only books more than 50 years old. In this way, modern novelists, and their narcissistic obsessions, get the heave-ho, and I can enjoy stories from Twain, Dickens, London, Chesterton - hell, even Beowulf - that would otherwise get stacked in the pile of good intentions.

A couple of years ago at a book sale near the cottage, I found a copy of the Modern Library edition of Damon Runyon's collected stories. If anyone remembers Runyon now, it's because of Guys and Dolls, which adapted his yarns of mobsters, strippers, and tough eggs for the stage. His writing, I think, is a snapshot of style bordering on comic genius; at least there's been no one like him before or since. Runyon writes strictly in the present tense, with no contractions, and a cadence that sounds like feet scuttling hastily through a back exit. His narrative voice has influenced gangster-speak to the present day. Joe Pesci's "I'm funny how?" speech in Goodfellas and the best dialog from “The Sopranos,” would not exist without Runyon's inspiration.

Runyon reportedly preferred his later, bucolic stories about small-town life in the Colorado of his youth, but these are tiresome "more than somewhat" when compared to tales of Harry the Horse, Blooch Bodinski and Nicely-Nicely Jones. The plots twist enough to please, but not enough to vex, which is important in the evening, after a glass or two of Canadian Club.

These stories of thieves, grifters, and racketeers carry a special tonic for a visitor in this part of Michigan, which was settled by Dutch Calvinists whose idea of a good time is a hard day's work. Like P.G. Wodehouse's, Runyon's stories feel like a blip in time, profiles of a moment that had passed by the time they were first published, if it ever existed at all. If summer days can be well spent relaxing in the shade with Bertie Wooster and his Aunt Agatha, then the nights belong to the idle denizens of Mindy's Restaurant, the Golden Slipper Nightclub, and “the racetrack at Saratoga, which is a spot in New York state very pleasant to behold.”

James Finn Garner is the author of five books, including the international bestseller Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. His latest is Recut Madness: Favorite Movies Retold for Your Partisan Pleasure. He is also the founder and custodian of Bardball, a website dedicated to the revival of baseball doggerel. You can judge his sins as a word snob by reading his eponymous website.

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