I skipped a good sixty or seventy pages of this book in the hope that jumping ahead would prevent me from pronouncing the Eight Deadly Words, but in the end it didn’t.
As the copyright page tells any reader, “The novel What Makes Sammy Run? was originally published by Random House, Inc., in 1941. Copyright 1941 by Budd Schulberg.” That’s pretty much the nub of the problem. It’s a book about Hollywood in the mid- to late 1930s, and so much about published novels, movies, and commercial writing has changed since then, that it all felt terribly out of date, and uninteresting. (Schulberg later wrote the screenplay for “On the Waterfront,” among other things, so he went on to have quite a decent career.)
The title character is a complete asshole who fucks over everybody he can in his career, and who supposedly can’t speak a paragraph without swearing, but there was more actual profanity in the first half of this sentence than in all of the book that I read. The past is a foreign country, and one can only allude to their colorful language there.
Apart from not caring what happens to those people, I didn’t buy several other major elements of the book. I didn’t buy that the narrator would care what happened to Sammy either. Sure, if the first-person narrator loses interest in Sammy, then he disappears from the book and it comes to an abrupt stop, but the author’s structural needs are not a real reason for Al Manheim to follow Sammy Glick’s every move. I didn’t buy much of tough dame Kit’s motivations either. And finally, I didn’t buy that Sammy was so much a better shark than all the other predators in the Hollywood tank that everything he tried succeeded.
The things that interested me most about the book fell outside the story itself.
[Sammy] may be said to be between patterns of social responsibility. And I believe this is true not only because he happens to be a second-generation product of the slums, but because our American culture as a whole may be in a state of dislocation. We are a babel of heterogeneous moralities. We are dizzy with change. … No wonder Sammy Glick (including all the Sammy Glicks who would never allow him into their clubs) has found the moral atmosphere so suitable and the underfooting so conducive to his kind of climbing. Yes, Sammy is still running, I’m afraid, and the question still is, How do we slow him down? Perhaps the answer involves an even bigger question: How do we slow down the whole culture he threatens to run away with and that threatens to run away with us?
That’s Budd Schulberg, from an introduction to the novel he wrote some years after its initial publication. That “dislocation,” that “babel of heterogeneous moralities … dizzy with change,” were both from the early 1950s, a period now generally regarded as one of the most stable and homogeneous periods in the nation’s recent history.
In 1989, Schulberg added an afterword, in which he notes a shift in some readers’ perception of Sammy from “the quintessential antihero, the bad example, the free-enterprise system at its meanest, brass-knuckle, kick-in-the-groin dirties” to someone who could be “a positive guide to their futures onward and upward.” While Schulberg still won’t swear on the page, he does not mince words: “But the dramatic transformation of Sammy Glick from the antihero of the forties to the role-model hero for the Yuppies of the eighties is a painful reminder of the moral breakdown we are suffering without even to realize that suffering is involved. … O.K. That’s how they’re reading it in 1989. And if that’s the way they go on reading it, marching behind the flag of Sammy Glick, with a big dollar sign in the square where the stars used to be, the twentieth-century version of Sammy is going to look like an Eagle Scout compared to the twenty-first.”
Budd Schulberg died in August 2009, at the age of ninety-five.