31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 20: “A Very Honorable Guy” by Damon Runyon

August 20, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Guys and Dolls and Other Writings.

9780141186726Damon Runyon’s style is so recognizable, and has become so influential, that there is even a word to describe it: “Runyonesque.” The word refers as much to the colourful argot that Runyon employed as to the motley crew of gamblers, hustlers, card sharps, and mobsters who people his stories. “I never expect to be in love,” says the narrator of “Tobias the Terrible,” “for the way I look at it love is strictly the old phedinkus.” As Pete Howell points out in his introduction to Guys and Dolls and Other Writings, “Nobody alive knows what a ‘phedinkus’ is.” (It comes from the same place that Steve Miller tapped for “the pompetus of love,” perhaps.) But, from the context, the meaning of this word remains perfectly clear, and much preferable to more pedestrian locutions.

“A Very Honorable Guy,” which first appeared in the August 1929 issue of Cosmopolitan, is only Runyon’s second published story, but already the “Runyonesque” style is on full display:

There is very little action of any kind in town with the high shots gone, and one night I run into Feet Samuels in Mindy’s, and he is very sad indeed. He asks me if I happen to have a finnif on me, but of course I am not giving finnifs to guys like Feet Samuels, and finally he offers to compromise with me for a deuce, so I can see things must be very bad with Feet for him to come down from five dollars to two.

(The term “finnif” for a fiver attests to the way that Runyon’s stories incorporated Yiddish, which, according to Howell, “in the 1920s was New York’s second language, as Spanish is today.”) One immediately noticeable aspect of Runyon’s distinctive style is his aggressive use of the present tense, which increases the immediacy of his scenes, and his almost pathological abhorrence of the conditional. (“Still,” he writes, “you will be surprised how many guys forget to pay.” Never, never “you would be surprised.”)

As distinctive as Runyon’s language is his milieu – Broadway during the Depression – and all its denizens. He once quipped, “I took one little section of New York and made half a million dollars writing about it.” He also provided material that inspired filmmakers such as Frank Capra, Lloyd Bacon, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who adapted Frank Loesser’s musical Guys and Dolls for the screen).

“A Very Honorable Guy” is the story of Feet Samuels, who earns his living “the best he can, which is the same thing many other guys in this town do for a living.” Feet owes money to a loan shark called The Brain, and he comes up with a curious plan to pay it off: find a doctor who is willing to pay for scientific use of his body once he’s dead, then sign a contract guaranteeing that he’ll have shuffled off this mortal coil within the month. Indeed, Feet has plans to “scrag himself” (another quintessential Runyonism), but he reconsiders his plan when he wins big by gambling some of the money the doctor paid him for his mortal remains.

In addition to being hysterically funny, Runyon’s story is also a vibrant glimpse into a fictionalized New York in the twenties (“Mindy’s” restaurant is a stand-in for NYC’s famous Lindy’s, and The Brain is commonly believed to be modelled on Arnold Rothstein, the real-life gambler who was responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series, and who was a friend of the author). A lively tale of grifters and double-dealers, there is also a good dollop of irony in the tale, beginning with the title: the reader is no more than a paragraph into the story before the narrator admits that far from being an “honourable guy,” Feet is, in fact, “no dice.”

No dice or not, Feet joins other Runyon creations – Madame La Gimp, Sky Masterson, Dave the Dude, Nathan Detroit – as an avatar of a particular corner of America, one with which his Kansas-born creator was particularly enamoured. Broadway is the real hero of Runyon’s stories, and the worst fate that he can imagine for his characters is to be banished from the Great White Way. Although Feet manages to escape to New Jersey, he will live out his life there in exile: “His credit is ruined forever on Broadway.”

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