Ivy League Phony, Real Thing Author

By David Samuels
The New Press, 176 pages, $22.95

By David Samuels
The New Press, 370 pages, $26.95

“The fact,” writes David Samuels, “that we lie like crazy while pretending to always tell the truth is such a common narrative strategy in American literature and American lives that we frequently confuse our wishful imaginings with reality.” A truth-teller, Mr. Samuels has just published two appreciations of the Great American Lie: The Runner and Only Love Can Break Your Heart, a collection of his essayistic journalism.

The Runner chronicles the brief success of fabulist James Hogue, a low-class, high-intellect con man who decided at age 29 to go to college. Again. In 1997, Mr. Hogue reinvented himself as the 17-year-old Alexi Indris-Santana, a Rorschach of elite liberal pieties: The self-reliant, multicultural child of a European sculptor, Santana spent his days in Little Purgatory, his canyon home, herding cattle by day, reading Plato by night—tailor-made for the Princeton admission committee’s self-serving mythology of Ivy league diversity, inclusion and merit. Before the discovery of his con, he excelled at his studies, earning all A’s and B’s. This, of course, had little bearing on the response of the Princeton administration once they realized that their unique student was an absolute fiction.

Despite the promise of this story, The Runner, an expanded version of a remarkable essay originally published in The New Yorker in 2001, feels slack and structurally ill-conceived. If it’s not quite true that there are no second acts in American history, James Hogue is a good example of how many second acts get booked in cheap clubs out by the interstate. The Runner starts where the Princeton caper ends, so the book spend more than half of its pages detailing the lies and deceptions of a gas-siphoning, electricity-pirating bike thief. By the time Mr. Samuels circles back to Princeton, interest has faltered.

More importantly, James Hogue is merely the faintest specter in the pages of The Runner. Mr. Samuels’ has little insight into Mr. Hogue’s motivation, and never really allows him to speak. It’s difficult to know a chameleon, yes. And yes, Mr. Samuels does mention a lawsuit that precludes discussion or reproduction of his communications with Mr. Hogue. To compensate for these shortcomings, Mr. Samuels often turns himself into a sympathetic intellectual proxy for Mr. Hogue, thinking through the similarities of their lives and the instability of identity. Still, the book’s near absolute estrangement from its central character makes The Runner frustratingly vacant.

I say all this reluctantly, because David Samuels is a wonderful writer, possessed of a subtle, compassionate understanding of how most of us somnambulists bungle through our American dream. It’s difficult to separate one’s response to The Runner and Only Love Can Break Your Heart because they are so closely akin, and not merely in theme and in content. Together they read as an improbable dialectic of problem and solution—for every false note, every lapse in The Runner, Only Love Can Break Your Heart responds with a solution, boldly stated.

The best of his collected essays are stylish, cerebral meditations on the ubiquity of self-deception. As Mr. Samuels writes, “Every writer I know shelters a truth somewhere deep inside that informs the stories they write. … My story has something to do with our national gift for self-delusion and for making ourselves up from scratch, which is much the same thing as believing in the future.” These delusions are rarely ones of grandeur: self-styled anarchists who don Nikes to throw stones at Starbucks and still don’t realize that their renunciation of market values has little to do with the market’s logic; a 77-year-old man who attributes his longevity to the years he spent driving around a Nevada nuclear test site “during atmospheric tests without the benefit of protective clothing”; salesmen deep in the ecstasy of a pyramid scheme.

The collection’s high point is the title essay, a masterly synthesis of reportage and cultural criticism that uses a Florida greyhound track as a lens through which to view one of our most persistent national fantasies: that you make your own luck. “What is most cruel about dog racing,” Mr. Samuels writes, “has less to do with how the dogs are treated … than with the belief system that is inculcated in bettors, which revolves around the demonstrably mistaken and often quite dangerous idea that if you try hard and believe in yourself, the laws of chance will be suspended.”

With an intelligence and unsparing lucidity reminiscent of Joan Didion’s work circa Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), Mr. Samuels has written some of the best long-form literary journalism of the past decade. The thrilling series of counternarratives to our prevailing national fantasies about luck, justice and honesty collected in Only Love Can Break Your Heart sadly makes The Runner seem more obviously flawed.

Michael Washburn is the assistant director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He can be reached at books@observer.com.

Ivy League Phony, Real Thing Author