What Makes Sammy Run? – The greatest Hollywood novel of all time?

What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg

Previously: The Day of the Locust

Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? may not be as fatalistic or absurd as The Day of the Locust, but it’s ten times as incendiary in its depiction of the movie industry—or, perhaps, of the types of personalities it attracts.

The book is an all-American rags-to-riches Hollywood novel, with its Horatio Alger character climbing the Tinseltown ladder one backstab at a time. Like Yossarian and Holden Caulfield, the titular Sammy Glick’s name became synonymous with a particular American phenotype. In 1940s lingo, Glick was a rat, a world-class heel—today, we would call him an asshole. Sammy is relentless—he’s always sniffing out the inside track, and he will steamroll over anyone in his way up. Insults bounce of him like bullets off Superman’s chest. Sammy sets the pace. Sammy takes care of Number One. Sammy runs, and with each rung of the ladder he ascends, his footwear improves.

The novel is narrated by Al Manheim, a New York drama critic who moves to Hollywood to make a go at writing scripts for the silver screen. Manheim is an all-American personality himself. A hard drinker who can crack wise with the best of them, Mainheim thinks he’s smarter than the average bear, and from the outset he’s convinced only he sees through Sammy’s brown-nosing and incessant self-promotion. For every Sammy in America, there’s ten Manheims.

World-weariness and disenchantment aside, Manheim is subliminally servile to Sammy Glick, a youngster who demonstrates unending hustle and self-motivation. Manheim detests Sammy’s very presence, yet goes out of his way to attend his birthday party at The Algonquin—only for Sammy to use Manheim as a stepping stone to ingratiate himself with a big-shot playwright. Manheim seeks out Sammy as soon as he’s arrived in Los Angeles, and accepts all the spec work Sammy throws his way. (One has the sense Manheim unconsciously trailed Sammy to Hollywood.) Again and again, Manheim winds up in Sammy’s company or debt, and Manheim can always gin up excuses for how it came to be.

Budd Schulberg
Budd Schulberg

A narrator less invested in Sammy would not sustain a novel’s length without some stock contrivance, such as a biographer or journalist dispatched to recount Sammy’s rise in Hollywood. A narrator more invested in Sammy would be too toady to sustain a reader’s interest. (Besides, Sammy would toss aside a sycophant as soon as his utility was exhausted.) In Manheim—an overlooked talent and depressed alcoholic—Schulberg crafted a character who sees through Sammy yet is drawn to him as a polestar. What Makes Sammy Run? is sometimes derided as a lesser, Hollywoodized Gatsby, but I view them as different beasts. Manheim is an omnipresent and active narrator, nowhere near as invisible or ineffectual as Nick Carraway. What Makes Sammy Run? also doesn’t carry Gatsby‘s odor of tragedy about it. There’s a shrug of the shoulders when it comes to Sammy Glick, a sense Schulberg is saying, This is the way the world works, folks.

In Sammy Glick, Schulberg introduced a character never before seen in American literature, and yet within a few paragraphs of Sammy’s introduction he’s instantly recognizable to any reader then or now. Literature referred to as “psychologically realistic” is often considered quiet and thoughtful. What Makes Sammy Run? is boisterous, breezy, and infuriating, yet the psychology of Sammy Glick seems as vivid and credible as any “serious” character. Sammy Glick is one of the the most arresting depictions I’ve ever encountered. That spark of recognition is part of what makes him so realistic.

The realism doesn’t come from a thorough plumbing of Sammy’s interior psyche. It’s the exact opposite: Manheim is left guessing what makes Sammy tick. Part of the novel’s depth is toying with the reader’s humanist quality of feeling there must be something more to Sammy. Schulberg suggests: Maybe there’s not. There is some teasing out of Sammy’s background to humanize him, but the details don’t add up to the final result the way that two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen combine to produce water.

Sammy is an exploitative social chameleon, but it’s just as revealing what others think they’re getting from him in return. In a less materialistic, less image-oriented culture, Sammy would be treading water at best. He ascends the Hollywood ladder because those around him keep offering him a boost. Like all great Hollywood novels, the industry is a stand-in for America’s “success-driven culture,” as Schulberg put it.

Published in 1941, in an age of hard-boiled writers whose bread-and-butter were loners like Manheim, in a time when authors like Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos were recording the failures of America for posterity, they all managed to overlook the ladder-climbers, the ass-kissers, the backstabbers—Schulberg got Sammy Glick down on paper first, and that alone is remarkable.

Schulberg noted Sammy represented “a way of life that was paying dividends in the first half of the twentieth century. … It will survive as long as money and prestige and power are ends in themselves, running wild, unharnessed from usefulness.” By every metric I can locate, this way of life is still paying dividends in the first half of the twenty-first century.

A common saw in storytelling is that comedies end with a wedding and tragedies end with a funeral. Without spoiling the book, What Makes Sammy Run? is a comedy. The ending won’t make you laugh, though.

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Movie poster for the Schulberg-penned On The Waterfront. In the film, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) testifies against mob influence over the dockworkers union. The episode is often compared to Schulberg’s congressional testimony against the Hollywood Ten and others.

What Makes Sammy Run? has been criticized as anti-Semitic and anti-industry. I can’t speak to the former, but as to the latter, it seems self-evident Schulberg wasn’t interested in buffing up Tinseltown’s less-than-stellar reputation. Unlike every other book on my list of greatest Hollywood novels ever, What Makes Sammy Run? has never been adapted to a motion picture. Before his death in 2009, Schulberg quoted Steven Spielberg as telling him the book was “anti-Hollywood and should never be filmed.”

Schulberg’s father was a movie mogul himself, a Paramount Pictures executive and the second half of a now-forgotten studio he founded with Louis B. Mayer. He once boasted to Mayer his son was “the only novelist who ever came from Hollywood.” Yet he moaned the book’s publication slammed the door on his son’s nascent Hollywood career.

Not exactly—Schulberg wrote several screenplays of note, including On The Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd. Schulberg was a Communist Party stalwart until the party pressured him to make What Makes Sammy Run? more proletarian. His friendly, name-naming testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities did not endear him in certain Hollywood circles. (The Los Angeles Times has one version of the story; the Fourth International sees things a bit differently.)

Born a Tinseltown blue blood, a child who grew up with movie stars at his birthday parties and running around studio backlots while movies like Ben Hur were being filmed, Schulberg has an intricate and complicated history with Hollywood. Reading his obituary, he seems to have met (or tangled with) just about every big name in Hollywood’s Golden Age. If no one will film What Makes Sammy Run?, perhaps someone can produce a biopic of Schulberg’s remarkable, if controversial, life.

Next: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy

The absence of technology in literary fiction

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Smartphones by Esther Vargas. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One of my complaints about literary magazines—both the small lit mags of university English departments and the literary lions like New Yorker, Tin House, and so forth—is the peculiar absence of up-to-date technology in their fiction. Characters don’t send much email. People rarely text each other. Voicemail is about the most modern of the Information Age conveniences in contemporary literature, and even then, it’s usually summarized by the narrator rather than “heard” by the reader. Why?

It’s no longer cyberpunk for your characters to have instant access to cyberspace in their coat pocket. It’s not science fiction for your character to read the morning news on a handheld view screen. Literary fiction often preens itself as being “realistic” compared to genre fiction, but how realistic is it today for a mother of two in Long Island not to have a 4G touch tablet in her purse or a FitBit on her wrist reminding her she’s not burned enough calories today?

Unless it’s set in the past or some truly remote locale, you forfeit your right to call your story a work of realism if your characters don’t have access to the Internet and they’re not using it fairly regularly. Digital access is simply that pervasive, worldwide. Yes, there are exceptions. I’m certain some writers think their characters or their settings are those exceptions. Probably not, though.

One reason for technology’s absence in literary fiction, I suspect, is that modern tech screws with storytelling. As greater minds than me have pointed out, we live in a age bereft of bar bets. The Guinness Book of World Records was originally conceived to settle pub arguments, but it was Wikipedia that ultimately fulfilled that burning need. Any question we have about the world or history, the answer can be located in an instant.

It carries into personal relationships as well. People no longer craft letters and post them in a box, then anxiously await a reply over the next days or weeks. When I was young, a friend might say he would call at eight—and so I would have to wait by the phone in the kitchen at eight o’clock, telling everyone else in the house not to make a call because I was waiting for one. My parents would wake my brother and I up in the middle of the night to say hello to our Midwestern relatives because the long-distance rates dropped after 11pm. (Remember paying a premium for long distance calls?) For years, many of my extended family members were nothing more than a tinny voice at the other end of a phone line and a yellowing Kodachrome print in my mother’s photo albums.

For all the nostalgia value of these tales, I’m happy to no longer be bound by such ancient analog technology. The key word of modern communications is instant. Unfortunately, such friction-free gratification often runs counter to a lot of storytelling precepts, things like tension (which involves time) and desire (which involves immediacy).

But mostly I suspect the writers of contemporary literature simply don’t like modern tech. Receiving a pop-up on your phone for an email explaining a long-forgotten lover’s death lacks a certain airy elegance that a hand-penned note on hospital letterhead offers. The terseness of SMS and instant messaging grates against the literary author’s desires for eloquence and nuance.

More broadly, there’s a general disdain for popular American culture in our contemporary literature. SUVs and dining at Olive Garden are often literary code words for boorish, crass people. Sympathetic characters tend to read the New York Times on Sunday mornings, walk to work, raise a vegetable garden, and run into friends at farmers’ markets.

This is one reason why I don’t buy the assertion that contemporary American literature is realistic. Too often it presents a world the writer (and their readers) would like to live in. That’s not hard realism. And this restrictive view of proper living feeds back on itself: literary magazines print these stories, developing writers read these stories and think they represent “correct” fiction, and so they write and submit likewise.

Give your characters the technology they deserve. If you’re writing about the past, that’s one thing, but if your story is set in modern times, don’t shortchange your characters’ resources.

Instead of viewing commonplace technology as a liability to storytelling, consider how vital the technology has become for us. Watch this magic trick, from Penn & Teller’s Fool Us:

The audience feels the risks the emcee is taking when instructed to place his own phone in an envelope. The surprise when the mallet is brought out, the tension it raises. Look at the audience’s visceral reaction when the mobile phones are hammered up. Even though Penn & Teller see through the act, there’s a kind of narrative structure to the magician’s “story.” At each step of the act, the stakes are raised.

Do this: The next time you’re out with a group (people you know and people you’ve just been introduced to), pull up a photo or a message on your smart phone, and then hand your phone to someone else. (Or, if someone offers you their phone, take it, twiddle with it, and hand it to another person.) Rare is the person comfortable with this. We don’t like these little things leaving our grasp.

That means, as writers, these devices are a goldmine.

We are wed to our new conveniences in ways we never were with “old” modern technology like microwaves, refrigerators, or even automobiles. Americans may love their cars, but they are married to their smart phones. Our mobile devices are lock-boxes of email and text messages, safe deposit boxes of our secrets and our genuine desires (versus the ones we signal to our friends and followers). Gossipy emails, intimate address books, bank accounts, baby pictures, lovers and lusts—our lives are secreted inside modern technology. This is rich soil for a writer to churn up, this confluence of personal power and emotional vulnerability.

Why dismiss or ignore this? Why not take advantage of it in your next story?

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Philip K. Dick on realism, consistency, and fiction

Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other ConversationsRecently I dove into the superb Philip K. Dick: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (from Melville House, publisher of the increasingly-intriguing Last Interviews collection) and am enjoying every page. I’ve written before about my semi-tortuous negotiations with PKD’s novels, and am finding some justification for my issues in these interviews with him.

With PKD I remain hamstrung: he’s more speculative and philosophical than the run-of-the-mill hard sci-fi writer. This is right up my alley. I absolutely love PKD’s questions of existence, identity, and freewill that lay the foundations of his novels; and he’s a Bay Area writer to boot. Yet I find him to be a flawed writer, one who was so-very-close to writing perfect novels but had trouble overcoming basic hurdles, such as with cardboard characters and sci-fi’s obsession with “ideas” over story.

(For the record, my list of great PKD novels, in no order, remain A Scanner Darkly and The Man in the High Castle. I’m sure PKD’s fans find that list ridiculously short and astoundingly obvious. I still pick up his work now and then, so who knows, maybe I’ll find another one to add. PKD was more than prolific.)

In The Last Interview, PKD mentions to interviewer Arthur Byron Cover his early affinity for A. E. van Vogt. (I recall being fascinated with van Vogt’s Slan in junior high school, a book built from much the same brick as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.) PKD observes:

Dick: There was in van Vogt’s writing a mysterious quality, and this was especially true in The World of Null-A. All the parts of that book do not add up; all the ingredients did not make a coherency. Now some people are put off by that. They think it’s sloppy and wrong, but the thing that fascinated me so much was that this resembled reality more than anybody else’s writing inside or outside science fiction.

Cover: What about Damon Knight’s famous article criticizing van Vogt?

Dick: Damon feels that it’s bad artistry when you build those funky universes where people fall through the floor.

It’s like he’s viewing a story the way a building inspector would when he’s building your house. But reality is a mess, and yet it’s exciting. The basic thing is, how frightened are you of chaos? And how happy are you with order? Van Vogt influenced me so much because he made me appreciate a mysterious chaotic quality in the universe that is not to be feared. [Emphasis mine.]

It’s the questions after my emphasis that make the book’s back cover (“How frightened are you of chaos? How happy are you with order?”), and for good reason: They strike near to the heart of the questions asked in all of PKD’s work.

But I’m interested in the line about the building inspector. Damon’s review of Null-A is dismissively brief (although I suspect what’s being referred to here is Knight’s essay “Cosmic Jerrybuilder”). I’ve not read Null-A, but in principle I line up behind PKD on this one.

Reality is not as sane and orderly as many writers would have us believe. If I’m critical of contemporary American literature’s obsession with “hard realism”, it’s because I think PKD has put his finger on a deep and unrecognized truth: Reality is a fragile facade, but what a thorough facade it provides. It’s one thing for the average person to think they have total understanding of things they have no access to—the heart of a politician, the mind of a celebrity, the duplicity of a boss or coworker—but it’s truly tragic when a writer writes as though they have this reality thing all sewn up.

In contemporary literature, there are often moments where the narrator will have some moment of clarity into another person’s life. Usually this moment is presented as the epiphany, although it’s rarely epiphanic. (See Charles Baxter’s “Against Epiphanies” for a better argument on this point than I’m capable of producing.) Never mind that these pseudo-epiphanies are the inverse of contemporary lit’s obsession with quiet realism and slight personal movement. These mini-epiphanies are the literature’s cult of poignancy, and they’re often not interesting because they’re predictable, rational, and orderly.

There is chaos in our world, and it produces strangeness and unexpectedness that is neither poignant nor tied to fussy notions of realism. This, I think, is what PKD was referring to.

My only quibble with PKD’s observation is that I don’t see chaos as an external dark force in the universe. We are the chaos. We produce it. I’m less concerned about the wobble in Mercury’s orbit than the ability for just about anybody to murder given the right circumstances. (See the 2015 film Circle for an exploration of just that.)

The human psyche is like a computer performing billions of calculations a second. Most of the results are wrong, some are off by orders of magnitude, but the computer smooths out the errors to walk a thin line of existence and consistency. Even with these errors, the human psyche assures itself that its footing is steady and sure, when in fact it’s walking on the foam of statistical noise. The number of calculations it gets right are the rounding error.

The noise and errors do not matter. Our minds have the cognitive plasticity to bind contradictions into coherency. We can absorb chaos and make sense of it. This, I think, is close to the heart of PKD’s novels.

Update: Shortly after posting this I discovered Damon Knight partially backtracked on his criticism of A. E. van Vogt:

Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period [while writing Null-A] he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.

Reading closely, Damon isn’t exactly agreeing with PKD’s comments (or mine, for that matter), but he does concede some flexibility on the supposed rigid strictures of fiction writing.