word craft


Story Behind the Story #45: The Mayor of Central Park

The Mayor of Central ParkFew writ­ers have names that become syn­ony­mous with a style of writ­ing; Damon Run­y­on is one of them. As my dic­tio­nary has it, “Run­y­onesque: lan­guage or imagery char­ac­ter­ized by plot or lan­guage sug­ges­tive of gang­sters or the New York underworld.”

Think of the musi­cal Guys and Dolls, which is based on his short sto­ries. Nev­er mind that Run­y­on was born in Kansas and spent most of his youth in Col­orado.  But it is rel­e­vant that I, a New York­er, while liv­ing in Col­orado, wrote The May­or of Cen­tral Park.

It is quite com­mon for writ­ers who have writ­ten a lot—such as me—to have a favorite book, a book which is not nec­es­sar­i­ly a favorite of his read­ers.  The May­or of Cen­tral Park (illus­trat­ed by Bri­an Flo­ca) fits that descrip­tion for me.  While it is all it about New York, base­ball, and gang­sters (in this case, rats) it’s most­ly about lan­guage, and hav­ing fun with it.

“To look at Oscar West­er­wit you might think, hey, just anoth­er New York City squir­rel. Only thing is, if you said that, you’d be dead wrong. ‘Cause the sim­ple scoop is that this here Oscar West­er­wit was a full-sized uptown roman­tic. And when you get an uptown squir­rel who’s roman­tic, let me you tell you some­thing: you got your­self a sto­ry bust­ing to trot up Broad­way like a tap-danc­ing centipede.”

The book had anoth­er major source of inspi­ra­tion, the extra­or­di­nary 19th cen­tu­ry illus­tra­tions by French artist known as J. J. Grandville. These satir­i­cal works depict­ed ani­mals in human dress. Just to look at them is to invent stories—as I did.

The Duchess and the Duke singing a noc­turne. J. Grandville, from Vie privée et publique des ani­maux (Pub­lic and Pri­vate Life of Ani­mals), under the direc­tion of P. J. Stahl, Paris, 1867. (Source: archive.org)

When I wrote The May­or of Cen­tral Park I envi­sioned a series of sto­ries in the same mode. Alas, I was one of the few read­ers who enjoyed the book. The series was nev­er written.

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