- Broadway Boogie Woogie: Damon Runyon and the Making of New York City Culture
Schwarz's generally excellent study manages two difficult feats at the same time. On the one hand, it summarizes two generations of work on Runyon. It brings together much of the strong criticism on Runyon from the revival of interest in him in the 1960s and 1970s and crosses it with more recent cultural studies work on his role in the New York of the 1920s and 1930s, most notably by Ann Douglas, David M. Kennedy, and William R. Taylor. On the other hand, it provides the most comprehensive reading of Runyon's short stories yet published, and it offers a jumping off point for a new wave of Runyon criticism.
Perhaps Schwarz's most provocative claim in reading the Broadway stories is his argument that we make a mistake when we regard the narrator as a stable, single figure. That breaks with a more than 50-year-old convention of criticism, but it liberates the stories in two key ways. First, it invites an awareness of the perpetually contingent quality of Runyon's writing. As Schwarz reminds us, whether Runyon worked as a reporter, columnist, or fiction writer, he was always aware of the specific and immediate context of his work. The stories that he wrote during World War II and in the midst of his own fatal illness come from a narrator with a bleaker and more jaded perspective than those from the end of the Prohibition Era. The wonderful syntax and sense of irony are consistent, but Schwarz argues that the perspective is different enough that we should not insist on a consistency of character and biography for the narrator.
Second, it makes possible new ways of seeing the connections among stories. The heart of Schwarz's study consists of three chapters in which he provides a reading of each Broadway story and places it within one of seventeen "genres" of the fiction. There is [End Page 752] much to argue with where Schwarz places one story or another and even with some of the genre determinations themselves, and Schwarz invites such argument. As he puts it, "Runyon not only resisted the categorizing sensibility but also had something of a postmodernist sensibility in understanding that absurdity and nonsense help make sense of things" (168-69). The categories that Schwarz proposes, contingent as they themselves may be, provide a terminology and approach for new readings of individual stories that otherwise run the risk of being overshadowed by the effect of the stories as a whole.
In addition to his groundbreaking work with the Broadway stories, Schwarz also proposes relationships between Runyon's career as a whole and his columns, reporting, and other story series. He is less original along such lines, but he does a good job of synthesizing much of the substantial but dated work by writers such as Edwin Hoyt who, having known Runyon personally, offer rich anecdotes that benefit from Schwarz's critical context. As a result, Schwarz makes the effort to keep all of Runyon's writing relevant even though he, like most readers, finds the Broadway stories more perpetually interesting.
All in all, Schwarz takes Runyon's world apart with real acumen, showing that exploring the differences in the stories and in the person(s) of the narrator allows us to see each story in a new light. While he puts that world together again a bit less successfully, his thorough catalogue of the stories is unrivalled, and he offers a provocative place to begin another generation of critical debate on Runyon. There are other good places to turn for ideas about Runyon's work, but none is more essential than Schwarz's new book, and none offers the same opportunities for asking new questions about a writer who is overdue for new appreciation.