Short Reading Lessons in Writing: A Piece of Pie

A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month.  The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. 

That staff member is me.

I’m learning a lot about how readers read—and that if you add Caramel Truffle coffee to the usual roast and provide vanilla-flavored creamer, all the good-natured complaints about your coffee stop mid-sentence.

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This month’s story was “A Piece of Pie,” which is mostly set in Damon Runyon’s 1930s New York.  The narrator and his friend Horsey try to set up an eating contest with a group of gamblers from Boston who think they’ve got a champion eater.  Unfortunately, their own champion, Nicely-Nicely, is dieting for the love of calorie-conscious Hilda.  They find a new eater in Hilda’s best friend Violet, whom Nicely-Nicely coaches.  The contest is a massive, multi-course meal split down the middle—each contestant will eat, untimed, until they can’t continue.

The contestants are neck and neck, when a giant pumpkin pie is brought out.  Violet breaks the rules to whisper something to Nicely-Nicely, the other side cries foul, and the judges demand to know what she said.  Nicely-Nicely tells them that she’s asked for another piece of pie once her half of this one is finished.  The other eater gives up in the face of her unstoppable appetite.

It’s only later that Violet confesses that she actually told Nicely-Nicely that she couldn’t eat another bite and to pull his bet on her before she resigned.  She and Nicely-Nicely elope, leaving Hilda to realize that men like something to hold onto when they dance . . .

I have to confess—if the name of this blog isn’t a clue—that Damon Runyon is one of my favorite authors who wrote, almost exclusively, about my favorite kinds of people.  But stories that are heavy on the patios, quick in the pacing, and light on the morals haven’t always fared well in our group, so I was interested in hearing what they thought about this one.

Half the group liked it, a few disliked it, two were indifferent, and one thought it beat having nothing to read while she was waiting to be interviewed for jury duty— something Mr. Runyon would have loved.

This is what I learned today:

Subject matter matters:

The people who didn’t like the story couldn’t get over their dislike of eating contests and fully admitted that they didn’t care enough to try.  Gluttony wasn’t funny and neither was starvation and they didn’t see the point.

Fair enough.

Overreading is as dangerous as overwriting:

 The two readers who were indifferent had more trouble with the vernacular and kept trying to read more into it than Mr. Runyon probably intended before tossing the thing aside.

As one of our other readers told them, there might have been a nod to unconditional love and moderation in all things in there somewhere,  but: “This is supposed to be a lighthearted joke, not War and Peace!”* 

Make it worth readers’ while, and they’ll work for it.

The majority of the group thought this story was hilarious-–maybe it’s not coincidence that most of them had heard of Damon Runyon and expected something funny and well-written.  They didn’t care that it wasn’t deep or that it’s essentially a set up for a double punch line (the reveal of Nicely-Nicely’s lie and the later elopement).  They loved the cadence and characters, the swing and the word choices.

Three of them actually had as much trouble with the phrasing as the readers above, but they decided to make the effort of reading it out loud.  This seemed to help them figure out the context and the humor.**  They weren’t at all surprised when I mention that a radio play of this story was broadcast as an episode of the Damon Runyon Theater program in 1948.

The most interesting comment came from a reader and former teacher who had been assigned Damon Runyon in high school or college and had thought at the time that he was the worst writer she’d ever read.  She said that she’d been a purist about grammar and punctuation and tense and couldn’t let herself enjoy the actual stories—this time, she’d let all that go and let the lingo carry her along.  And she loved it.

And  everyone–everyone, regardless of opinion—had at least one favorite line or descriptions.  As the former English teacher said, “He shows when he tells.”

That’s a whopper of a compliment.

Even the two people who disliked this story admitted that the writing wasn’t so bad—they thought they might try Mr. Runyon’s other ones.

That’s not such a bad compliment, either.

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*I’m not sure how one would go about keeping readers from over-interpreting one’s work, except by keeping  it out of reading clubs and out of literature courses . . . and I can’t see that happening.

** It was reported that the husband of one reader laughed so hard he nearly drove off the road.  I think Mr. Runyon would have appreciated that, too.