What Makes Sammy Run?

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?

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.