Almost everybody's heard of Damon Runyon, but most of you probably have no more direct experience of him than I did a couple of weeks ago. You know of him because every author since then has praised him, or you know him from homages like Spider Robinson's pee-down-both-legs funny short story "Chronic Offender," or you know him from quotations reprinted in other works, or more likely you know of him from movie or stage adaptations like Guys and Dolls or Little Miss Marker or Bloodhounds of Broadway. And all I can say, as someone who also knew no more than that, was that there's no way other than to actually read a big chunk of Damon Runyon to appreciate how much more he is than the impression you've probably gotten ... not least of which because his most famous homage, the musical adaptation of Guys and Dolls, while fun, is no more faithful to the original than the musical adaptation of South Pacific was to James Michener's classic, Tales of the South Pacific. What's worse, it's inferior in the same way: it substantially dumbs it down. (Although I have to say that, surprisingly, the 1989 movie adaptation Bloodhounds of Broadway came remarkably close. Check that one out.)
The nameless narrator of these short stories never tells us much about himself. He's single, never married, and not looking. He seems to be about 50ish. He's a life-long New Yorker. He's unemployed and seldom has much money on him, but even though the stories take place during the overlap between Prohibition and the Great Depression he never misses a meal and is usually more or less current on his rent. He bets on horse racing occasionally, and claims to be a teetotaler by preference. He speaks and writes in a peculiar dialect that Runyon is famous for, and that is so clever, witty, and funny sounding that these stories would be entertaining even if he was just reciting the phone book. But he's not, because while he tries not to do so, the narrator lives an incredibly interesting life. You see, he's also an incurable insomniac. And after 3:00 in the morning or so, there's only one place open within walking distance of his apartment, somewhere between 40th and 50th street off of Broadway: an all-night diner called Mindy's. And because it's the only place open late, Mindy's attracts a lot of business from other people who don't get off work until 2:00 am or 4:00 am or so: strippers, rum runners, burglars, bookies, professional gamblers, con men, leg-breakers, mob bosses, race track touts, gossip columnists, and the occasional wealthy tourist who comes to Mindy's to hit on the off-work strippers and gawk at the mobsters and be ripped off by the con men.
And here's the thing: the narrator wants very badly not to have anything to do with the kinds of guys that would, as he says several times to us, "shoot you as quick as look at you, and maybe quicker." He is not one of them. He is not a tough guy, and is in fact something of a physical coward. But you see, he's just enough of a coward that he's terribly afraid of making any of these people angry at him. So he nods at what they say, agrees with anything, laughs at their jokes, drinks what's put in front of him, goes where he's asked to go, listens to whatever he's told, and never squeals -- and on top of that, he's nobody's competition, not for the money or for the strippers' attention. So all of the mob bosses and con men and rum runners and card cheats and nightclub owners and so forth love him, they think he's the greatest guy on Broadway. And these are his stories, the ones they tell him, or worse, involve him in.
Some of them are so funny you'll laugh yourself sick. Some of them are terrifying or chilling or tragic. One or two of them are merely mediocre short stories. And a couple of them, I'm thinking in particular of one of his Christmas stories, "Three Wise Men" in Blue Plate Special, are funny and fast moving and yet deeply heart-warming. And none of them romanticize the subject of organized crime at all, even while Runyon goes out of his way not to demonize almost any of them. If you haven't read all three of these books, do what I should have done decades ago: track them down, add them to your to-read pile. You'll thank me.