« Isaac Bashevis Singer, "The Gentleman From Cracow" | Main | Acquisition: The Moviegoer and Their Eyes Were Watching God »

Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run?

Budd Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run? is a devastating portrait of ambition and success, set against the glimmering backdrop of 1930s Hollywood. Sammy Glick is a screenwriter and then producer who has no artistic talent whatsoever, and yet becomes a great success due to both his own relentless, remorseless drive and the town's warped values. Though he has no artistic talent, he wantonly steals from and exploits those who do, and turns their creative work into his own personal success through his greatest strength - that of self-promotion. He tirelessly sells himself, hogging the spotlight wherever he goes, taking full credit when he deserves none.

And yet, Hollywood rewards his bad behavior (which also includes a complete lack of conscience) and by the end of the novel, having stomped on everyone in his path on his way up the ladder, he has reached the pinnacle of success - he is production head of a major studio, is married to the gorgeous daughter of the multimillionaire financier who backs the studio, and owns a vast estate in Bel Air. He has everything, for the moment at least.

Sammy is an infuriating character, and as act after appalling act piled up, I found myself hungering for his ultimate comeuppance, the karmic retribution he so fully deserved. Which made me smile when I read the narrator thinking along the same lines, on the second-to-last page:

I thought how, unconsciously, I had been waiting for justice to suddenly rise up and smite him in all its vengeance, secretly hoping to be around when Sammy got what was coming to him; only I had expected something conclusive and fatal and now I realized that what was coming to him was not a sudden pay-off but a process...

As the novel ends, Sammy is on top, a blustery and superficial fake in a town that celebrates and rewards bluster, superficiality and fakery. But his retribution - and there will be retribution - won't be immediate. Instead, Hollywood will slowly tire of him as he ages and becomes overly familiar, and he will gradually be nudged aside for someone fresh and new, and he will find himself working his way, quite unwillingly, back down the career ladder - working with steadily smaller budgets, middling scripts and then B and C actors until one day he will likely be without any work at all. The same qualities which fueled his Hollywood success will ensure his downfall. But Schulberg neatly leaves Sammy's downfall offscreen, as it were, showing the protagonist on top but with the seeds of his eventual demise already sown.

What Makes Sammy Run? is a terrific, entertaining and thought-provoking read, one which I highly recommend.

February 22, 2009 in Books | Permalink