After the all-too-real misery of the New York presented in Caro’s massive, masterful biography ‘The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York‘ (and I don’t even want to mention the election), I was in bad need of a pick-me-up. In fact before I was half way through Moses’s career arc I had already decided on my next read. It would be set in New York and in the same time period, but it’s hard to think of two more different books.
The title story in the collection, ‘Guys and Dolls: or The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,’ is pure joy and completely enveloped me in a world far removed from the political machinations and social deprivation of Caro’s depression-era New York. First we’re introduced to the hero ‘Of all the high players this country ever sees, there is no doubt but that the guy they call The Sky is the highest. In fact, the reason he is called The Sky is because he goes so high when it comes to betting on any proposition whatever. He will bet all he has, and nobody can bet any more than this.‘ This doesn’t mean The Sky always plays fair of course, but it does mean he has a reputation to maintain when he falls for the Salvation Army mission worker Miss Sarah Brown: ‘She is tall, and thin, and has a first-class shape, and her hair is a light brown, going on blond, and her eyes are like I do not know what, except that they are one-hundred-per-cent eyes in every respect.’ You’ll have to read the story to see if The Sky can ever win his Miss Sarah (but just to be clear, the ending is different, and far more satisfying, than the musical which shares the same characters and basic plot).
If the first story is probably the best, the others don’t fall far behind. Nearly all are about guys trying to convince dolls to become their ever-loving wives. Most of the others are about married relationships in which said ever-loving wives are more than a match for their gangster husbands. When love isn’t at stake (and often when it is) the action centres around crime capers; a personal favourite has to be ‘Butch Minds the Baby’ in which Big Butch agrees to a ‘business proposition’ involving a safe and dynamite but only if he can bring along his son because ‘”I must mind the baby. My old lady is very, very particular about this, and I dast not leave little John Ignatius Junior for a minute. If Mary comes home and finds I am not minding the baby she will put the blast on me plenty. I like to turn a few honest bobs now and then as well as anybody, but,” Butch says, “John Ignatius Junior comes first with me.”‘ The description of childminding at the scene of the crime (including a talking doll and paraphernalia for heating milk) is one of the funniest things I have read in a very long time.
Frankly, I could quote Runyon for ever. He makes me long for a simpler time, where all guys hung out round Mindy’s restaurant, all dolls were on their way to becoming ever-loving wives and nobody, but nobody, used contractions. It seems 1930s New York can be the perfect place for escapist fiction and I’m the joyful owner of another book guaranteed to make me smile.