Gadi Taub has a PhD in American History from Rutgers University, and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He writes essays and fiction, including fiction for children. His book The Witch of Melchett Street won the Israeli Ze'ev Prize for children's literature and was adapted for TV. Gadi is a TV and radio host and an op-ed columnist for the daily Ma'ariv. He also contributes to The New Republic and other American and European papers. His book The Settlers and the Struggle over the Meaning of Zionism is forthcoming this winter. Gadi lives - and blogs - in Tel Aviv. Here he writes about his enthusiasm for Damon Runyon's stories.
Gadi Taub on Damon Runyon
Damon Runyon isn't normally regarded as a serious author. His short stories have always been considered - not least because of the way he used to talk about them himself - as a form of entertainment. The stuff of Broadway musicals. But there is more to Runyon than entertainment. And if one knows Runyon's stories for long enough, one feels it even before one thinks it.
I first encountered Runyon's stories at the age of 13, when our homeroom teacher came into class one day and read us, for a full 45 minutes, a story called 'Butch Minds the Baby'. I read everything by him I could get my hands on after that. It's easy to imagine why these stories would be appealing to an adolescent boy. They have simple things to say about manliness, and about good and evil, and their plots are as tight and as well tailored as the best of detective novels. They are also romantic without spilling over into sentimental kitsch, because they are ironic but not corrosive of sentiment. But there is much more in these stories. And as the years went by I found myself, especially in darker times, returning to Runyon for solace. Runyon has tapped into some of the most inspiring things about American life, in a way that few other writers have. And simplicity is actually part of it.
In a masterly essay about Churchill and Roosevelt, Isaiah Berlin wondered about the differences between America and Europe. His Churchill is infused with a deep awareness of the weight of the past, a Burkean sense of the complexities and importance of tradition, and an acute grasp of the gravity of leadership. Roosevelt, on the other hand, was light-hearted and optimistic, intuitive and oblivious to complexity. Above all he dismissed the past and saw the future as a vast open field for boundless and exciting new possibilities. It is this disregard of the past, and this refusal to delve into complexity, which accounts for the best and the worst about America. At its worst, it is American simple-minded, vicious puritan moralism. (I'm a smoker and I spent a few years in the US, so trust me, I know.) At its best it's American generosity. Runyon's stories are a tribute to that which Berlin saw in Roosevelt: a kind of humanly generous, self-consciously simple, existentialism.
The quintessential Runyon character is a gambler named The Sky. The Sky comes from a backwoods town, and all he has for moral guidance (Runyon makes fun of the man's father's attempts at moral education) are Gideon Bibles which he reads up in hotel rooms - his only home for years. He sees nothing of the piety of evangelical Christianity in the bible. Only simple common sense. The Sky is never tied down by anything: he owns nothing except the suit of clothes on his back, a hand gun, and the money in his pocket; he knows he is broke only when he reaches into his pocket and finds nothing there. He is called The Sky because he is the highest stake player anywhere: 'He will bet all he has,' Runyon writes, 'and nobody can bet any more than this.'
What Ronald Reagan said so clumsily - 'It is always morning in America' – for The Sky is almost literal. Everything is always up for grabs, and in every moment life begins anew. This is what makes the promise of American life so enchanting, and this is also what makes America so frightening. A society built on such premises breeds a fear of chaos. In the absence of tradition as a check on behaviour, America's answer was a vicious form of moralism and a formalistic obsession with laws and rules. But there is another side to American culture, that which was so admirable about Roosevelt and the war effort he led: human compassion is clear to the heart, not just the mind. And when it is, it is enough to have a heart to be moral and to act on it.
This, in a nutshell, is the story of The Sky. He falls in love with a mission worker, and he tries to do good for her the only way he knows. He tries to win souls for her mission in a crap game, because, as Runyon puts it, the mission business seems to be very slow at the time. When she hears about the game, she rushes to the gambling joint and forces The Sky to gamble on his own soul. Not knowing the game is rigged - The Sky just discovered this and was about to pull his convincer and settle the score - she wins his soul. The metaphor is clear enough. She thinks she beat him in his own game (gambling), because she is his moral superior. But in truth he beat her in hers (ethics) because compassion overrides moralism. What makes for true human morality in this story and in all of Runyon's work is simple compassion.
If you think of this kind of (originally Scottish) existentialism as compared to, say, its French counterpart, Runyon's simplicity appears in its full humane force. Moral choices are not heroic fiats of rebellion against fate, nor are they shocking philosophical discoveries. They are the simple everyday sympathy which connects us humans, when we are at our best, in bonds of mutual care.