Popular fiction is supposed to be essentially story-driven; the proof that it works is the sound of the pages turning. But a few of the great pop writers were stylists, above all, and their success is measured by a different sound, that of the snort of appreciation followed by a phrase read out loud to a half-sleeping spouse in bed at night. The pages stop turning while we admire the sentences. Few readers of Raymond Chandler can recall, or even follow, the plot of “Farewell, My Lovely”—Chandler himself couldn’t always follow his plots. What they remember is that Moose Malloy on a Los Angeles street was as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel-food cake. Of all the pop formalists, the purest and strangest may be Damon Runyon, the New York storyteller, newspaperman, and sportswriter who wrote for the Hearst press for more than thirty years, inspired a couple of Capra movies, and died in 1946. Runyon’s appeal, though it has to be fished out like raisins from the dreary bran of his O. Henry-style plotting, came from his mastery of an American idiom. We read Runyon not for the stories but for the slang, half found on Broadway in the nineteen-twenties and thirties and half cooked up in his own head. We read Runyon for sentences like this: “If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business.”
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