David Samuels writes the kind of national magazine articles that most journalists only dream about. I’m not talking about celebrity interview “gets,” although Samuels is on the cover of the Atlantic Monthly right now with a story in which he speaks to Britney Spears, and has interviews with both Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones to his credit. And I’m not thinking of travel to foreign lands, or even exciting investigative work. Instead, Samuels’s essays are dynamic first-person features, often upward of 10,000 words in length, that are about everything from a decaying Florida dog track to the atmosphere in the Pentagon in the weeks immediately following September 11, 2001. What binds them together is Samuels’s technique. Like a classic New Journalist, Samuels goes places to get his stories, and his amazing ability to hang out with all kinds of people is his distinguishing strength. Yet underneath this personable, cagey fa§ade lurks something far edgier and more idiosyncratic.
Samuels will be in Santa Barbara next week to sign copies of two books he just published simultaneously with The New Press. David Samuels writes the kind of national magazine articles that most journalists only dream about. Only Love Can Break Your Heart brings together 19 of his best articles, most of which originally appeared in either the New Yorker or Harper’s. The Runner expands a piece about con artist James Hogue that began as a New Yorker article, and shows how easily Samuels adjusts to the longer book format. Even though I had read most of these articles when they came out, I found the pair of books made for compulsive, put-important-things-aside reading, and I had finished them both within 48 hours of bringing them home.
The subject of The Runner, James Hogue, is best known for creating a false identity, Alexi Santana, which allowed him to gain entrance to Princeton University. At Princeton, Hogue got straight A’s in his science classes and ran on the cross-country team for almost two years before he was discovered to be a 29-year-old ex-con from Utah, and not the 19-year-old self-educated shepherd from Colorado he was pretending to be. For Samuels, Hogue and his Princeton alter ego are the basis for some fine-and arduous-traditional reporting and at the same time feed an ever-expanding meditation on the widespread appeal and unpredictable fates of liars and other self-invented Americans.
I spoke with David Samuels last week from his home in Brooklyn, New York.
Have people been asking you about the legacy of New Journalism because of these books? Yes, I do get compared to the New Journalists-Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, mostly-but I don’t belong to that generation chronologically, and I don’t imitate them stylistically. There are no ellipses in my work, for instance, and I am not high on amphetamines. There is a similarity between my work and the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s in that we share a mission to describe America. Not as a whole, which is impossible, but as an idea, which I think remains a valid and important thing to try to do. Most people have given up on that project of finding stories that reflect the idea of America, but I have not, because I believe that it only seems like that abstraction has fallen into a million little pieces. There is a transcendent American idea, and it’s alive in each of us, but it’s more like a whacked-out thought experiment than some coherent system of belief. Being American by definition forces all of us to imagine reality in new ways. I do think Americans are special; we are different from other people in an important way. But it’s part of the reason why we get into so much trouble when we try to run the rest of the world.
Why do you suppose that is, that Americans are involved in this thought experiment? The fundamental difference seems to do with the perception of time. To an American, the past can never make a claim equal to that of the present or the future. This is why we get the tremendous hucksterism of the future that I looked at with things like the network marketing pyramid schemes I reported on, or Derby Lane, the dog track. I have spent a lot of time outside the country since September 11, 2001, and one thing that I see when I leave America is a tendency to yearn for something that’s in the past. The destruction of the palace or the temple-this is the grand narrative in so many other places, and it’s not, to me, a good one. It helps me to realize that the way Americans tend to live, in some imaginary fold between the present and the future, is not necessarily so bad. Now I think things like “American literature will never be great,” and “the perfect America will never come” with something like happiness because, you know, the perfect Greece was maybe 2,500 years ago, and the perfect France was 250 years ago, but who wants that now?
We are future-oriented. Is that it, or is there more? There’s more. The other thing that impresses me about the American idea is how supple and resilient it has been. During the past two centuries, the forces in American culture that have stood up and said, “stop doing that,” or “don’t wear that,” or “put that away” have never really won. America is like a big weird dream that Americans keep having while everybody else looks on. Our national identity has become a shared hallucination, a grand fantasy that makes itself real through force of numbers. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be a reckoning at some point. Your fantasies can become reality, but not without repercussions.
Can you relate that to The Runner? It seems like every few years the impulse toward fraud, or maybe just our sensitivity to it, relocates itself culturally. In the beginning there were the Ivy League pretenders, people like James Hogue who could sell these exemplary stories of themselves as Americans in exchange for something like admission to Princeton. There were others, at Yale, at Harvard, at Brown, and they were all demonstrated to be fakes. That was 15 years ago. And then the same sort of scandals washed through the world of journalism, with people like Stephen Glass at the New Republic, and Jayson Blair and Judith Miller at the New York Times, and they were caught making things up.
Today it’s become the false-memoir syndrome. But in a way I don’t really care about any of this unless it allows me to ask deeper questions about who we are as a people. I believe there is a cultural reason for that behavior, and for our interest in it. We do live in a fantasy world in this country, and it is a complex part of our historical fate. It’s not that we love to lie, although sometimes it looks that way. It’s more like that is our genius-to start again in the middle of things, and to make ourselves up as we go along.
David Samuels will read from and sign Only Love Can Break Your Heart and The Runner at Borders (900 State St.) from 7-9 p.m. on Monday, April 14. For more information, call 899-3668.