DAMON RUNYON: A LIFE. By Jimmy Breslin. Ticknor & Fields. 410 pages. $24.95. EARLY IN 1983, Jimmy Breslin sat in Costello's, an old New York City pub, drank a pot of espresso, smoked a cigar and denied he had ever read any of Damon Runyon's columns when he was a kid.
"No, and he was terrible, too, by the way," Breslin said. "He got away with murder."
Since then, Breslin has read a lot of Runyon's columns and short stories. He also has changed his mind. He now considers Runyon "a major writer," a columnist who performed the nearly impossible task of putting "a smile into a newspaper," and a man whose "characters became known as Runyonesque, a word that is one of the dozen most descriptive words today."
Breslin originally denigrated Runyon's writing because he had long been compared to him, usually unflatteringly, and hated it. Critics, noting the similarities between Runyon's and Breslin's streetwise stories, dismissed Breslin as "Runyon on welfare." Recalling his early years on newspapers, surrounded by reporters and others who had known Runyon in his prime, Breslin, now 61, admits that "whenever anybody mentioned Runyon to me . . . I said, to hell with him. I'm better. I'm J.B. No. 1."
In this biography, Breslin at last takes the Runyon monkey off his back -- and makes it his pet.
This is biography in the Breslin manner: anecdotal, impressionistic, melodramatic, meticulously detailed in some points but without footnotes, bibliography or index. He scorns such scholarly trappings and candidly, even brazenly, admits that while he spent many hours researching Runyon's life and work by going through old newspaper files and crumbling courthouse records, "a lot" of what he offers the reader is produced "straight from memory, and I am about the only one who can do it because of the life I've lived."
The life he has lived? His memories of a man he never met? This is the story of Runyon's life as Breslin heard about it from countless people he has known who also knew Runyon, including Damon Runyon Jr. And Breslin invests it with something no other biographer can offer: an instinctive, intimate understanding of how a writer like Runyon worked and felt about his profession, an understanding that comes from Breslin's own career and experiences.
It is an academic question how accurate or truthful such a biography can be, and Breslin doesn't think that's important. He believes that Runyon's tales have almost become "the official record" of the New York of his time, yet "so much of it never happened, what do you care? What does anybody care?" Runyon "invented the Broadway of 'Guys and Dolls' and the Roaring '20s, neither of which existed, but whose names and phrases became part of theater history and the American language," Breslin writes. In his view, that should be enough.
If we accept the notion that facts are incidental in a supposedly factual story so long as the tale is amusing or instructive, then this is a biography eminently suited to its subject. Runyon has gotten the biographer he deserved.
There are pitfalls, however, in a biography based largely on "memory." For example, in describing Runyon's first visit to the doctor who diagnosed his fatal throat cancer in 1944, Breslin has Runyon recalling that the doctor also had treated Babe Ruth for cancer and had attended Ruth's funeral with him. The trouble is that Runyon died in December 1946 and Ruth in August 1948, so Runyon couldn't possibly have attended or recalled Ruth's funeral.
Nevertheless, Breslin offers much in this biography that is entertaining and fascinating. The Runyon we meet is an immensely disciplined, talented writer, consumed by his work, disdainful of his colleagues, disinterested in his children, faithless to his first wife, a friend of a famous athletes and entertainers but partial to the companionship of petty thieves, gangsters and murderers.
While in no way making Runyon a sympathetic character, Breslin has such skill that he can almost make the reader feel sorry for this miserably selfish, cynical man as he is deserted and left dying by his wacky second wife, a woman half his age. And Breslin also places some wonderful gems of insight amid the rhinestones of re-created "conversations" and dubious anecdotes. Among the best Breslin aphorisms: "The only reason florists open before noon is for guys to make up for the night before." "In time of trouble, alcohol always betrays," and, "There are few highlights to dying."
The best compliment that can be paid to any book belongs to this one: The reader is sorry to have it end.
Neil A. Grauer is the author and illustrator of "Wits & Sages" (Johns Hopkins University Press), a book about syndicated columnists. He writes from Baltimore.