October 07, 1991 12:00 PM

by Jimmy Breslin

Damon Runyon lived out of the side of his mouth. From that angle, the jazz-age writer invented a colorful Broadway world where sleazy gangsters and cold killers were transformed into such high-spirited, warmhearted characters as Harry the Horse and Nathan Detroit in his Guys and Dolls.

Maybe it was a lopsided take on reality, but it pleased some romantic suckers to think tough guys could dance and the story behind Little Miss Marker could happen—that gamblers were a trifle negligent about scruples but underneath had a heart of gold.

Now comes Breslin with his image of Runyon and, predictably, he pulls a Picasso. In his impressionistic take on Runyon, the eye is on the wrong side of the face, the mouth floats in space and a lot of bull is thrown in for fertilizer.

For example it’s not possible to believe that a killer in the 1930’s asked the question, “You going to whack him?”—this being a relatively modern term in the gangster patois.

There are also conversations no one could possibly have overheard between people long since dead. Nevertheless, in this fabulous re-creation of an era, Breslin creates an updated Damon Runyon story. This kid comes out of the West (he was born in Kansas), conquers New York journalism and makes vivid the world of Texas Guinan chorus girls. Jimmy Walker—era crooks, Dutch Schultz killers.

He does this while leading a semi-degenerate life of his own—living sinfully with a girlfriend, neglecting his kids, gambling away a fortune and smoking himself into a grave. (Runyon died of throat cancer at 62 in 1946.)

How does Breslin get into sealed rooms and duplicate conversations from 65 or 70 years ago? “I must,” he writes, “have heard a thousand conversations about the man and his times from all parts of town because I spent so much of my life, too much of it, in bars and police stations, in racetrack receiving barns, fight gyms and political clubhouses. Nobody working New York today has been in more places or heard more, or remembered more, and so when I tell you this story and I put down what people say, the conversation was told to me long before we met each other as reader and writer.” How ya gonna argue with that?

At its best, the book has a lovely musical tone, a great duet between two master bull artists across the years. At its worst, it has the boorish Breslin boasting: “I was in my early twenties at the Journal-American and whenever anybody mentioned Runyon to me, I will tell you exactly what I said. I said, to hell with him, I’m better, I’m J.B. Number one.” He was wrong: As man-of-the-people writer, Ernie Pyle was better than either of them. (Ticknor & Fields, $24.95)

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