A Long-Winded Life Of Runyon
Damon Runyon: A Life
By Jimmy Breslin
Ticknor & Fields
Book review by Jack Shafer
Jack Shafer is editor of the weekly Washington City Paper.
Damon Runyon: A Life
By Jimmy Breslin
Ticknor & Fields
410 pages; $24.95
Nobody believed Norman Mailer, least of all Mailer, when he brayed that he was the inheritor of Ernest Hemingway's mantle. The sad thing about his cartoon bragging was that it rubbed off on Jimmy Breslin, who was on the Mailer ticket when he ran his agitprop campaign for mayor of New York City in 1969. More Mailer's flack than his running mate, Breslin only half-learned the art of self-promotion from the novelist, failing to absorb the lesson that the boast carries a punch only when it is presented for comic relief. Two-and-a-half decades later, Breslin's crowing is ever louder as he regularly anoints himself America's Deadline Poet Laureate, following in the footsteps of such masters of the form as Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon, Mike Royko and the subject of his brand-new windy biography, Damon Runyon.
"Damon Runyon: A Life" is just the book to give your brother-in-law for a birthday present — that is, if your brother-in-law doesn't read. Breslin's biography is shamefully padded, assuming the pretense of scholarship but failing miserably to illuminate one of the most important lives in American journalism.
Breslin would have the reader believe that he's done the legwork. There it is in black and white, Breslin's visit to the Hearst archives at the University of Texas to read the legendary columnist's clips. Breslin rifles the vertical files taking notes, but then commits a journalistic sin by dumping the raw contents of his notebook into this wretched excuse for a biography.
Breslin's sloth is evidenced on every page: his languid wind-up to the birth of Runyon that makes the prologue to "Tristam Shandy" seem succinct; the indulgent digressions in the life stories of the hundreds of supporting players in Runyon's life; the meaningless aside about the building of the IRT line on Broadway; the truncated account of Runyon's second career as a Hollywood hack; the failure to decode, or even attempt to decode, Runyon's distinctive prose style and illustrate how the columnist-sportswriter-playwright spun his magic. Breslin further cheats the reader by only sketching the creation of such enduring characters as Louie the Lug, Harry the Horse, the Lemon Drop Kid, Madame La Gimp — the grifters, boxers, mobsters, and molls who populated the avenue of Runyon's invention: Broadway.
Born in the wild west of Manhattan, Kansas, in 1880, Runyon was bathed in printer's ink by his father who ran the local newspaper. Then as now, the journalist's job was an itinerant one and the Runyans (that's how dad spelled it; Damon changed the spelling to accommodate an editor in Denver who goofed) bounced around Colorado newspaperdom. The young journalist joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17-and-a-half and was shipped to the Philippines to fight William Randolph Hearst's Spanish American war: There he saw more action in the whorehouses (some) than on the front (none). By 1911, the terror of Denver journalism was working for William Randolph Hearst in New York, a relationship he maintained until he wrote -30- in 1946.
Lord knows Runyon lived a life worthy of a grand biography. As a Hearst reporter he chased Pancho Villa in Mexico with General Pershing; the only difference being that Pershing never caught up with the revolutionary and Runyon befriended him. He caroused with Caruso, swung with John McGraw, galloped with Red Grange, and mobbed it up with Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel and Al Capone. Even if Runyon had never written a graceful line in his time, the story of his life would be a winner.
But Breslin fumbles the assignment, writing a book that is to Runyon as the Darryl Zanuck film "The Longest Day" is to Normandy: In neither does the huge supporting cast of stars ever coalesce into a story. Assembling a wealth of pithy Runyon anecdotes, Breslin decides against weaving them into a life and instead lines them up against the wall to execute them, columnist-style. Writing this book at breakneck speed, he substitutes the cadence of the daily 1,000-word column introduction, set, spike for the all-encompassing rhythm of sagacity that authentic biographers have.
By the third page, the rat-a-tat-tat of his prose overcomes you like fumes so that you can hardly concentrate on what he's rattling about: "A ship's whistle blared in the air. There, outside the windows, the Texas oak trees became the East River and here was an old freighter sitting in the water off Pier 44 East River, waiting for the longshoremen to walk over from Mutchie's bar... My business here concerned Damon Runyon... I am here, leaning against these filing cabinets [at the Hearst archives], because more than anybody else I've ever heard of, he beat the New York newspaper business. Beat it to a pulp... What do you care? What does anybody care?.." and so on.
There's yet to be a good biography of a literary figure — and that's what Runyon was — that reads as if the author put his heart, soul, and time into the project. "Damon Runyon" doesn't even have an index! Blame it on a cheap Jimmy Breslin: It would have cost him only a measly $1,000 at the going rate.
Nobody sets out to write a bad book. Breslin was probably filled with enthusiasm when he signed the contract for "Damon Runyon," but perhaps the closer he got to the Broadway dandy the less he liked him. By today's standards, Runyon was an unethical journalist, carousing with murderous mobsters when he should have been exposing them. For a right-thinking, Mafia-debunking journalist like Breslin, the realization that yesterday's hero was a chump must have clotted his pen.
"Damon Runyon" is bound for the remainder table in cargo container-sized shipments because Breslin came into the project thinking that Runyon was great, but finished it thinking the fabled columnist wasn't that good. Well, neither is Breslin.###