Just Another American Dreamer

David Samuels, The Runner (The New Press, April 2008)

Dreams have consequences. The common American desire to recreate ourselves, if taken too far, can destroy the link between our identity and reality. In order to reinvent ourselves, we are forced to redact our past. We lie to others and to ourselves. In the process, we can lose anything resembling a coherent self.

David Samuels’ new book, The Runner, ostensibly documents the story of James Hogue, one of the most infamous liars in recent American history. In reality, the work is a meticulous account of an experiment in taking the American dream to its most radical end. Samuels probes the contradictions of American identity and the resulting book is a mesmerizing, perfectly conceived addition to the literature of American reinvention. The Runner reminds us that there are still Gatsbys and Kanes amongst us and that a person cannot remodel his identity without suffering severe repercussions.

Samuels, best known for his long-form journalistic essays in Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, was a student at Princeton at the time Hogue first garnered national attention. In 1988, Hogue was accepted at Princeton as an undergraduate. At the time, however, Hogue was 29. He applied under the false name, Alexi Indris-Santana, and compiled an application filled with astonishing falsehoods. Alexi had lived in the Mohave desert, herding cattle, and trained himself to become a world-class long-distance runner who was able to run a mile in under four minutes. His mother lived in Switzerland, his father was dead, and Alexi had never received any formal schooling. He was completely self-taught, but boasted an impressive knowledge of literature and science (and a sterling SAT score) that made the Princeton admissions team salivate. Without fully confirming his identity, Princeton accepted Alexi. However, Alexi deferred his college education for a year because he claimed he needed to take care of his sick mother.

In truth, Hogue needed the year off because he was in prison for previous burglary charges. But the next year, he did matriculate at Princeton. He became one of the best runners on the track team and garnered straight A’s in his first semester.

Though he never knew Hogue, Samuels has been infatuated with the case since Hogue was expelled from Princeton after being recognized by a former associate at a track meet. Samuels’ dedication appears on every page of the book. The Runner is that rarest of biographical works, able to take a detail from an individual’s life and magnify the trifle in order to explode a myth about the culture and time in which the person lived. For Samuels, Hogue illustrates the fallacies of the American dream. He writes that all Americans are “fibbers.” We lie about who we were in order to become someone better in the future, but by rupturing ourselves from our past, we no longer have a sense of who we are. The Runner masterfully shows just how dangerous life becomes when we forget that our myths are lies.

Recently, I sat down with David Samuels at his Brooklyn Heights office to discuss The Runner and other topics. The book will be released on April 8, along with a collection of Samuels’ best magazine essays entitled Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Samuels will be reading from both works at Book Court, in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, on April 29.

Vincent Rossmeier (Rail): What initially intrigued you about Hogue?

David Samuels: I think one of the things that attracted me to [Hogue’s] story was how it seemed to evoke such strong and opposing instinctive reactions in people. Some condemn him as a fraud and some see him as a romantic, Gatsby-like hero and you can see their hunger to believe that James Hogue was this scintillating figure out of a storybook. But of course, he’s not. He’s a borderline sociopath. He bores you and at the same he leaves you with a chill. His life is this accumulation of petty lies and deceptions that leave him severed from any idea of a true-self. And he leaves this swath of emotional damage on the people around him. Yet, at the same time, it’s also not fair to look at Hogue strictly as a criminal. Is he violent? No. Has he hurt anybody? Not really.

I wanted to ask: What are the affects on the individual of living this way? What are the effects of living this way on people who come into contact with this person? The answer is that it feels cold, it feels empty. There’s something chilling about it. There’s an existential horror about seeing that part of ourselves reflected back in this way. Living [as Hogue did] is like living in a waking nightmare.

Rail: You empathize with Hogue, but you don’t make him out to be an attractive person. It’s almost like you end up feeling empathetic for him theoretically, but not for who he actually is.

Samuels: I do feel a real empathy for James Hogue. I feel I know exactly what it’s like to be him. We’re always acting less out of deep-seated knowledge about who we are and what the world is like than a postulate about who we think we should be and what we think the world should be like, and it’s always getting disrupted.

We all become another person. I think that as you get older, it’s kind of like looking at one of those visualizer effects when you’re listening to music on a computer. There’s a recognizable continuity in the selves we inhabit and the selves we portray to others. But it’s very tricky. Who would James Hogue have been if he had graduated from Princeton as a member of the Ivy Club, with a straight A average? Would he have married his wealthy girlfriend? I don’t see him as someone who is wild. I see him as a person who did accept moral limits on the harm he would inflict on others. I see him as a person who through a bunch of choices, and choices which are available to all of us, alienated himself completely from an idea of an authentic self, an idea of a coherent, truth-bound existence.

But it’s still true that most people don’t do what Hogue did. We all suffer from a degree of disconnection from a classical narrative approach to life. Surely James Hogue is more extreme than most. But on the other hand what is it about him that’s so uncomfortable to us?

Rail: And is his saga distinctly American?

Samuels: I think how we tell our stories, the stories of American lives, they’re very unique stories. There’s a reason Americans are obsessed with autobiography. And there’s a reason why so many autobiographies are turning out to be fake. The reason is we’re a country that puts an unprecedented emphasis on the idea that people make themselves up from scratch. That we invent ourselves. That we’re born again.

These sort of lush, coherent stories that have a beginning, middle, and end, those are stories that fit uneasily with the idea that we erase the past and that we make ourselves up anew. There’s a great discomfort that’s inherent in this contradiction with the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and the stories we tell ourselves to try to solve this contradiction. First person coherence is contradictory.

Rail: In a sense, he’s an extreme version of the American dream?

Samuels: That’s right.

Rail: It’s interesting how competent he was. He couldn’t fake that he was an excellent runner. He couldn’t fake that he got straight A’s when he was at Princeton. He had a certain aptitude. If he was just a complete failure, would his story have been as captivating?

Samuels: The reason his story is an American life that’s worth writing about is that it tells us a great deal about who we are, what we value, and it also shows where this culturally central notion of self-invention leads us when it’s taken to it’s logical extreme—namely, to an unbearable level of isolation and disconnection.

Rail: You seem fascinated with the subject of personal dislocation. That idea appears in both The Runner and your collection of essays, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, especially the piece on Woodstock.

Samuels: To me, these books are very similar because they present a similar diagnosis. In the case of the articles I am generally looking at things from the point of view of a structure or a big event, and the individuals who were caught up in it. I think that works very well in a very long magazine feature. And I love those pieces. But with the Hogue book, I decided to take one little atom and look at it without the structure or big event. In the Woodstock essay, the reader comes out feeling superior to all the people organizing and attending the event. I’m very aware of where I’m putting the reader in a story. In a magazine piece, you have to extend some courtesies to your reader. Allow them to think of themselves as a good, worthy person who in exchange for spending an hour and a half with your incredibly long magazine article can think of themselves as being a good person. On the side of the angels. With the Hogue book, I wanted to take that away from the reader.

Rail: Did Hogue change your perception of how fluid identity is?

Samuels: I’m a first-generation American. I’m the first member of my family to be born here. And I think because of that, these questions have always hit closer to home. What is it to be an American? My parents were something else. The fluid nature of personal identity was something that was on my mind before I’d ever heard of James Hogue.

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