What Makes Sammy Run?

May 1, 2007

I finished What Makes Sammy Run last week and have been thinking about it non-stop since. If you haven’t read it then you need to–it’s very much on the level of The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald said so himself) And even if you haven’t read it, you can still understand the discussion. When Palahniuk wrote Fight Club he was emulating Fitzgerald, with the narrator telling the story of his dead hero. What Makes Sammy run is like that in some ways stylistically, but morally is a bit more ambiguous.

You can grab the basic plot on Wikipedia. Essentially, Sammy is the all-American heel. He’s your Ari Gold without the slightest bit of human decency. He rises through the ranks of Hollywood without ever writing a word. He is shadows and illusions, and the ultimate power-player. His story is told by Al Manheim, his older and only friend who is fascinated by Sammy’s drive. The title is Schulberg’s chorus line that he repeats throughout the book, and eventually answers in the final pages. Sadly, as Schulberg mentions in his introduction, the message has been perverted. Our society tends to see Sammy as a hero instead of a villain–or at least someone to pity. what-makes-sammy.jpg

So what makes Sammy run?

He’s running from self-reflection, from meaning. It’s fear knocking on the door that he’s frantically trying to block with accomplishments. He’s running because he started running and now he can’t stop–too many people are chasing. Gatsby, Durden they were all in search of purpose, Sammy was fleeing from it.

He, like most Americans–like America–was just trying to fill the hole. Not consciously, because that means admitting it exists, but subconsciously, if just to stop the wind from whistling through. Some do it with drugs, some with sex; Sammy did it with it running, with doing. Hollywood wasn’t his ‘personal legend’ so much as it was the ultimate distraction from discovering it. He’s not the American Dream but the American sexual fantasy, oversized, indulgent and wholly harmful.

Sammy is an accomplished man, but not at great man–that takes ethics, purpose and principles. The punishment for that is not failure but overwhelming success. When you base your happiness on getting everything you want you’ll get it all and never be happy.

I might want what Sammy Glick has but I don’t want to be Sammy Glick. I might want to be where Sammy Glick is, but I don’t want go the way Sammy Glick went. As Machiavelli said, you can take power with skill or luck–or thirdly, with cruelty. And there is no honor in that. There’s no glory in being a rich, 50 year old boy; the same child at the child at the end of the journey as at the beginning, only with a fatter wallet. That is a life of masturbation.

Al has that symbolic dream, where Sammy was climbing a rope that never ended. Is that the life you want? He might have been on top of us, but there never was a top for Sammy. You need to look at relative vs. absolute gains. When you do, it’s clear that he isn’t and never was in control of his own destiny–the rope was. Sammy ran because he had to, like a rat in wheel convinced he was on some eternal, endless road. Do we respect addiction when it’s in the form of a prestigious career? Is obsession no longer a weakness when it produces the things we supposedly aspire to? Can complete consumption ever really be healthy?

The world killed Gatsby, but he lived for something. Durden died so Jack could live. All Sammy did was run. I would characterize myself as ambitious–I get labeled it all the time. But I don’t think I see the world like Sammy, and the second I do, is the second I ‘reach for my revolver.’ I’d like to learn from the dichotomy of Jay and Sammy. And as Aristotle suggested, triangulate towards moderation.

Again, maybe I’m just young and maybe I’m a not-yet-broken idealist. But I think you can wretch what you please from life–both materially and spiritually. All my life people told me that what I wanted wasn’t possible, that I wasn’t playing the game enough. So far I’ve been right and my philosophy has paid its returns. Sure, I’ve gotten ahead of myself and lost control–but every time it was an err on the side of hope and never on cynicism. That was Sammy’s fatal flaw, and why he and Gatsby are tragic heroes of complete opposites. Gatsby tied his whole being on a single love and the world killed him for it. Sammy tied his whole being on never, ever loving and killed himself inside for it. Can self-awareness and dogged personal ethics navigate this chasm? My money says it can. Forget the strategy paradox here, for if I’m wrong–if we’re wrong–at least our mind’s eye was set on the ideal world and not the material.

The caveat here is the human impulse to rationalize all successful people as possessed Sammy Glick’s, deluded into chasing their tails. Is Al really the hero? Are you just jealous? Where was his self-reflection? Or was it all about Sammy?

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

8 responses to What Makes Sammy Run?

  1. pieter hilton May 1, 2007 at 5:10 pm

    holiday what the fuck… this super trips me out… this girl i met in paris who lives in barcelona tells me to read devilmonkey.net and after a few days of going through white dwarf i notice a link with your name on it… weird.

    k that’s it, nice to see you’re doin well with yourself

    -pieter (giant)

  2. Pieter, you don’t leave your email address? What are you thinking?

    And what are you doing in Paris? I thought you’d died or that Hyde Park had gotten to you. What have you been doing man? How’s the music thing?

  3. This reminds me of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which I’m sure you’ve probably either heard about or already read. If not, get on it. The way she plays the different characters, giving each of them a very distinct theme to represent, intertwines and conflicts them, is genius. And from the sounds of it, the same themes that make up Sammy’s character are the ones she instead divides between each of her main characters.

    I read it when I was 17 and it hit me like a brick — not as something new, but as confirmation on everything I had already known but hadn’t been able to figure out yet. Which is what the best books do.

    It took me three years to soak in the themes, think about them and live by them and explore them in my own ways, until at 20 when I re-read the book, finding my refined interpretations of it even closer to Rand’s intended message.

    For those years I barely read anything, not wanting to distract myself and conscious of the fact that I was taking those years to sort it out. Re-reading it three years later wasn’t something I did on a whim; it was something I was working towards the entire time.

    It took me three years to read The Fountainhead, and I’m sure in a lot of ways I’m still going to be reading it. It’s been the launching pad of everything about myself that I’m proud of. It’s “that book” for me.

    And hey, if nothing else I know you’re not going to let such a good example of your latest inspirations go unread.

  4. Mike,

    Have you read The Virtue of Selfishness? I have it on my shelf but never picked it up. Is it worth reading?

  5. Haven’t read the book but Sammy Glick sounds like a “simple” combo of NPD + workaholism. He was cruel, arrogant, power hungry, manipulative, aloof, and driven, right?

    And Gatsby was kind and hopeful–but also naive, phony, and scheming.

    I don’t really think Glick and Gatsby are polar opposites as you seem to suggest. First of all, they inhabit the same class. They are both members of “the accomplished.” And even within that class they weren’t opposite. Gatsby was pretentious, he was a criminal, and he also tried to steal another man’s woman. Not too virtuous. And I’m betting Glick was, or at least had the potential, to be all of those things as well. So the two have quite a few similarities.

    Anyway, you can still avoid becoming either Glick or Gatsby, just by becoming yourself. Does it matter that Glick and Gatsby are accomplished, and you want to be accomplished too? Not at all, because the reasons behind your decision fundamentally differ from theirs.

  6. I would start with the Fountainhead if you want to read Ayn Rand. I picked it up after hearing an interview with Mark Cuban where he said he’s read it something like 7 times, and it’s become one of my favorite books. I’m actually suprised you haven’t read it, since Rand sends the a lot of same messages that you write about here. Her philosophical preachings can get a little overwhelming at times (especially in Atlas Shrugged), but Fountain is an beautifully written and is a must-read regardless of how whether you can completely apply “Objectivism” is as a life philosophy.

  7. Ryan,

    I noticed you said you’re an idealist. May I suggest Max Barry’s three books, Syrup, Company, and Jennifer Government. They take PR/Advertising>Marketing ideas to the extreme. Thought provoking books presented in a light and wildly entertaining fashion. Not idealist propaganda, but I’d like to know your thoughts on them. Thanks

    [email protected]

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  1. 42 One Sentence Book Descriptions | Thought Catalog - October 30, 2015

    […] What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg: The chasing of the American Dream by a ruthless hustler whose punishment is getting everything he ever wanted. […]