For nearly four decades, Damon Runyon was America's liveliest columnist and a New York celebrity who virtually invented the romance of the Roaring Twenties and the illusion of Broadway. By turning a few dozen hoodlums and speakeasy dancers into the lovably dishonest ''guys and dolls'' of his short fiction, he made a fortune, lived the high life, inspired 26 movies, a great musical, and the adjective Runyonesque.
Still, he was pretty much of a louse, a man who treated his first wife and kids like chattel, took enormous glee in the fleecing of suckers, and winked broadly at murder. Jimmy Breslin wants you to know all that in Damon Runyon. Breslin is no shill for the colorful character. Even he can't resist calling the guy an ''unreliable bum.'' So why such a massive biography? ''Because,'' says Breslin, ''more than anybody else I've ever heard of, he beat the New York newspaper business. Beat it to a pulp.'' Besides, it's a great story.
Born in 1880 in Manhattan, Kan., Runyon was a classic case of the American hustler who makes himself up as he goes along. Christened Alfred Damon Runyan, he changed the spelling of his last name most likely to disassociate himself from his much-hated father then dropped his first name when an editor told him that ''Damon Runyon'' happened to be a good-looking byline. And his byline was something that Runyon, who'd been a reporter since age 15, cared about fiercely.
In New York, at Hearst's morning American, he worked the sports beat, but since the world of sport and the world of crime were so often indistinguishable, Runyon and his portable typewriter spent as much time parked in Broadway saloons as they did at the ball field. He gave up drink, but he listened and he watched, and when he finally turned to fiction, he distorted shamelessly, turning New York's seedy midtown into a kind of underworld Oz, and transforming thugs like Frank Costello and Owney Madden, Arnold Rothstein and Arthur Bieler into Dave the Dude, Nicely-Nicely, and Nathan Detroit, ''fine, upstanding dishonest people who fell in love,'' says Breslin ''often to the sound of gunfire.''
By the 1940s, most of Runyon's old pals had been murdered, World War II was changing the dynamics of Manhattan, and his era had passed. Abandoned by his second wife the preposterous Patrice, who'd grown up on the streets of Juarez but claimed to be a Spanish countess and then stricken with throat cancer, Damon Runyon died in 1946. Appropriately enough, his ashes were scattered over Times Square.
Breslin freely concocts dialogue to enrich an anecdote (much of the material, he says, comes from ''a thousand conversations'' he heard about Runyon). Nonetheless, the author has whipped up an irresistible entertainment, a barroom biography bursting with ego (Runyon's and Breslin's) and crammed full of social history, newspaper lore, and urban comedy. But is it true? Who knows? Who cares? If it didn't happen exactly this way, it should have. A