All Commentary
Thursday, May 8, 2014

All of Life Is 6 to 5 Against

Damon Runyon. Guys and Dolls in Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008. (Original publication dates vary by story from 1929 to 1940.)

So last Thursday I am crammed into a seat on a very small airplane, and I am not what you would call comfortable, because even for a doll like myself who is about knee-high to a parking meter, there is not so much in the way of space on these things. And I am drinking tea, because I am the kind of a doll who likes a cup of tea more than somewhat. While I am putting myself outside of the tea, I am reading this Damon Runyon guy and thinking he is possibly the right guy for my next Freeman piece.

The problem is that I do yet not know what Max the Editor thinks of this plan. If you do not know why it is that this guy is called The Editor, you are smart not to go off and ask him. The word at the crap game is that he makes some pretty serious cuts from time to time, and splashes around the red ink in a way that is both painful and also permanent.

As it turns out, he says to me that I can write the piece, but I am not allowed to do it all like Runyon. Because Runyon, it turns out, has done that already, and I should cease and desist before I get myself edited. Since I am known to be attached to the idea of continuing to breathe, I cease and also desist. Post haste.

Damon Runyon’s prose style is addictive but also, as you can see, dangerously infectious. His short story collection Guys and Dolls guides the reader through an underworld of Broadway citizens—with names like Harry the Horse, Feet Samuels, and Nicely Nicely Jones, and dolls like Madame La Gimp and Miss Missouri Martin—that would be unforgettable even if it hadn’t given birth to one of the great stage musicals of all time, Guys and Dolls, and to classic movies like Little Miss Marker and The Lemon-Drop Kid. Runyon’s ear for the rhythms of conversation, especially slang—real and invented—are unmistakable. And his advice for living is as pertinent now as it was in my grandmother’s day. Who can argue with his statement that “I long ago came to the conclusion that all life is 6 to 5 against”? And who can forget the enormously useful advice given to Sky Masterson by his father?

Son, you are now going out into the wide, wide, world to make your own way, and it is a very good thing to do, as there are no more opportunities for you in this burg. I am only sorry that I am not able to bankroll you to a very large start, but not having any potatoes to give you, I am now going to stake you to some very valuable advice, which I personally collect in my years of experience around and about, and I hope and trust you will always bear this advice in mind. Son, no matter how far you travel, or how smart you get always remember this: Some day, somewhere, a guy is going to come to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is never broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that the jack of spades will jump out of this deck and squirt cider in your ear. But son, do not bet him, for as sure as you do you are going to get an ear full of cider.

Runyon’s work is more than a stylistic delight or a source of fun. It is a site for thinking about markets—particularly black markets. Written during Prohibition, most of Runyon’s stories involve bootleggers either as major characters or in supporting roles. Often his descriptions of their business histories are remarkably detailed. Big False Face, from “The Brakeman’s Daughter,” is a former street tough turned bootlegger.

You must remember that at the time he starts turning out his beer, and for years afterward, Big False Face is being most illegal and quite against the law, and I claim that the way he is able to hide several breweries . . . is practically magical. . . . Well, when Congress finally gets around to saying that beer is all right again, Big False Face is a well-established, going concern, and has a fair head-start on the old-fashioned brewers who come back into the business again, but Big False Face is smart enough to know that he will be able to keep ahead of them only by great enterprise and industry, because it seems that certain parties are bound and determined to make it tough on the brewers who supply this nation with beer when beer is illegal . . . forgetting all the hardships and dangers that these brewers face through the years to give the American people their beer, and all the bother they are put to in hiding breweries from the gendarmes.

In addition to this history (which should remind everyone of Bruce Yandle’s “Baptists and Bootleggers”), we are reminded that Big False Face—for all his crimes and misdemeanors—possesses some of the bourgeois virtues. “Big False Face opens up these plants and puts many guys to work, and turns out plenty of beer, and thus becomes quite a philanthropist in his way, especially to citizens who like their beer.” But Big False Face is also a murderer and a gangster—perhaps partially as a result of an inclination toward crime, but also certainly as a result of the business for which he has such a talent being banished to the underworld.

Feet Samuels of “A Very Honorable Guy” is one of Runyon’s more honest citizens. He is “generally broke.”

What Feet Samuels does for a living is the best he can, which is the same thing may other guys in this town do for a living. He hustles some around the race tracks and crap games and prize fights . . . scalping bets or steering suckers, but he is never really in the money in his whole life. He is always owing and always paying off, and I never see him but what is his troubled with the shorts as regards to dough. The only good thing you can say about Feet Samuels is he is very honorable about his debts . . . although of course it is only what any hustler such as Feet must do if he wishes to protect his credit and keep in action.

Feet owes money to The Brain, a dangerous loan shark who “has people around him who seem to resent guys getting dough off of him and not kicking it back.” With no prospect of repaying the money on time, Feet looks for alternate solutions, and settles on suicide. A little more thinking suggests to him that he should sell his future corpse to a local doctor, use the money—paid up front—to pay off The Brain and to buy some diamond bracelets for a doll who likes him “more than somewhat” and generally have a good time before he goes.

The proposition gives rise to some interesting questions. Is this even a deal Feet can make? How much is Feet worth dead? Is he worth more because he’s tall? How will he kill himself? The doctor wants to study his brain, but can they find a method that is reliable, relatively painless, and brain-preserving?

Without spoiling the twists of the tale, suffice it to say that at the end of the story, Feet survives, but the loan shark The Brain declares, “Feet Samuels is nothing but a dirty welsher for not turning his body to you as per agreement, and as long as he lives he will never get another dollar or another okay off of me, or anybody I know. His credit is ruined forever on Broadway.” But this, notes the narrator, is not so bad because Feet and his doll are “raising chickens and children right and left, and . . . all of Hortense’s bracelets are now in Newark municipal bonds, which I am told are not bad bonds at that.”

Runyon’s work is not filled with deep moral lessons, but it is filled with guys doing the best that they can, within their quirky underground’s code, to honor the deals they should honor, and to put a few potatoes together in some tough times, in the hopes of moving the odds to better than even money.