Reviewed by John Palattella
The Nevada Test Site is a ghost town of the cold war. A little larger than Rhode Island and about an hour's drive northwestof Las Vegas, it lies among volcanic mountains and dry riverbeds, and is cordoned off by miles of fence. Several years ago David Samuels paid a visit to the old nuclear proving ground while writing an article for Harper's about "caging the dragon," the process of designing, triggering and studying contained nuclear explosions. Samuels peered into the Sedan Crater, which still radiates energy from the detonation of a 104-kiloton nuclear bomb in 1962. He interviewed technicians who had readied and triggered the bombs and fabricated the imaginary towns they obliterated. He toured a complex of subterranean tunnels built beneath the desert as a reusable home for nuclear tests. And he learned about the production of plutonium and how scientists had devised a way to estimate the size of a nuclear explosion by measuring the refraction of light in the mantle of glass that blooms from rock in an explosion's blast furnace. The site's terrain is mind-boggling, and Samuels manages to keep his cool while exploring it. There's one thing that does shake him up, though, which is learning that the 1,054 American nuclear tests conducted at the site, and the countless hours and untold sums of money spent designing and analyzing them with elaborate computer programs, in the end yielded "less than a single second's worth of usable data." The smallness of the accomplishment is staggering.
The accomplishments of Samuels's article about the test site, "Buried Suns," and the new book in which he's gathered that piece and eighteen others are also staggering, but in a much larger sense. In Only Love Can Break Your Heart, Samuels examines what he calls the "process of destruction and renewal by which American culture is made." What he discovered as he crisscrossed the country for a decade, going from New York City to Nevada to Oregon and many points in between, is the "shared cosmic joke" of postwar American life -- that the national dream of self-transformation and self-perfection is a recipe for delusional thinking and self-destruction. Along the way Samuels encounters a few folks who, thanks to a rare combination of chance, fortitude, delusion and poise, have managed to beat highly unfavorable odds and dodge the wrecking ball. There's Stevie Wonder: "Where Michael Jackson mutilated his face and skin, Stevie Wonder was blessed by nature with a disability that made him better able to understand and live with the deeper fictions that support our national life." There's a freshly winged pilot of the Goodyear blimp: "As a kid, I used to love watching Disney on Sunday night -- a world that was just happy and peaceful -- even for an hour," says John Conrad. "Well, that's exactly what it feels like up here." And there's the DJ and hip-hop producer Prince Paul: his "records are the sonic equivalents of the bits of found paper or plastic or candy bar wrappers that a suburban Picasso might use to make a collage for his fifth-grade class."
This small fraternity of "tender-hearted isolates" is outnumbered in Samuels's America by an assortment of drifters, dead-enders, grumblers, dark angels, parched souls, failures and frauds. The supernova of this crew is James Hogue, a serial imposter whose most audacious con was getting accepted to Princeton in 1988 under the alias Alexi Indris-Santana, a self-educated cowboy and track star, and whose story Samuels tells in another new book, The Runner. Hogue's scam was discovered in 1991, and after being prosecuted for defrauding Princeton Hogue pursued various small- and big-time cons, first at Harvard, where he was nabbed stealing gems from a museum where he worked under a pseudonym as a security guard, and then in Telluride, Colorado, where over the course of several years he morphed through a menu of identities (engineer, master carpenter, stunt skier, purveyor of custom-built safes) as he preyed on wealthy ski bums and prosperous locals. (A significant portion of The Runner first appeared in The New Yorker in 2001, where Hogue was inducted into the tribe of artful liars profiled there, including Joe Gould, by Joseph Mitchell in 1942 and '64, and Brett Kimberlin, by Mark Singer in 1992 and '96.) Like Only Love Can Break Your Heart, The Runner is filled with people whose lives are "pervaded by the daily aftertaste of inconceivable destructive power." They all are trying to survive the fallout from their own Sedan Crater, and Samuels's dispatches about their lives shimmer with the casual artistry of Prince Paul's sound collages and the hardened luster of glass shards pried from Nevada blast pits.
Samuels took up magazine writing in earnest the mid-1990s, when he returned to the United States after covering the Balkan wars for Harper's and found himself marooned in a land of Mini-Moos. "I remember sitting at the counter of my local diner and being entranced by the large number of gold-foil-covered creamers that came in a bowl along with my coffee," he explains in the preface to Only Love Can Break Your Heart. Samuels took the overabundance of Mini-Moos as a sign of the ersatz prosperity of the Golden '90s, "a historical sweet spot so creamy and rich and frosted with so many layers of delusional thinking that dwelling on that moment for too long is guaranteed to induce an immediate diabetic coma. Knit together by an invisible web of beneficent new technologies like cell phones and e-mail, everyone in the world was getting rich." But the cornucopia of shiny gadgets and virtual connections couldn't dispel Samuels's yawning sense of existential drift:
The stories that I shared with my peers, who grew up in the seventies, were about working mothers and fathers who got angry, absented themselves, or got divorced. We joined together in a generation-wide regression to childhood where we could at last feel safe, because we were now adults and were no longer living at home. We ate Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner and stayed up late and got high and watched whatever crap was on television.
His peers did share something besides an appetite for stuff from a box. Like Samuels, they searched "for a point where inner and outer equilibrium could find a proper balance."
The distressed and deracinated soul-searching for a sense of grounding is a recurring subject of modern literature and journalism, which is why it seems shortsighted for Samuels's publisher and other reviewers to compare him to Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion. Why is it that more than forty years after the New Journalists broke into the game, and with a younger generation of journalists like Ted Conover, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Kate Boo and others working in fresh and innovative directions, the work of Wolfe and Didion remains the only benchmark for narrative long-form journalism? It's true that Samuels begins the preface to Only Love Can Break Your Heart by echoing the most brazen observation from Wolfe's preface to the 1973 anthology The New Journalism -- that journalists, not novelists, are the authors of "the most important literature being written in America today." Aside from that, and a few other jolts of gonzo brio in his preface, Samuels has very little in common with Wolfe. Samuels has written fiction; in his preface he mentions the "desiccated corpse" of an abandoned novel, and he recently told the New York Observer that he's writing a second novel. In his journalism, though, he hasn't followed the example of Wolfe and other novelists like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, who tested the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Nor does Samuels harbor any anxiety over the literary status of journalism, which he serenely calls "the mongrel art of writing literature on deadline." He may be working on another novel, but he wraps up the preface to Only Love Can Break Your Heart with the admission that writing for magazines is the only kind of life he knows.
Like Wolfe, Samuels is keenly interested in examining prosperity and social status. The Runner is, among other things, a study of how Hogue managed to game the status anxieties of the American class system and its elite institutions. But unlike Wolfe, Samuels isn't fixated on social status, and in this light it's instructive to consider what kind of material he leaves out of his work. "The Blind Man and the Elephant" is a remarkable story about Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones and the spectacle of Super Bowl XL in Detroit. The Stones played the halftime show, and Stevie was added to the bill as the opening act after the citizens of his hometown denounced the NFL for not having asked any of Motown's many great black musicians to jam. Samuels concludes the piece with some impressions of the postgame scene. His eyes sweeping across the locker room of the winning team (the Pittsburgh Steelers), he notes that "lithe blacks in bathrobes roam the locker room, bumping fists with mountainous whites with purple legs and tiny jockstraps." That sentence terminates a paragraph. Wolfe most likely would have extended the description by rummaging through the clothes in the players' lockers to pinpoint their social status; then he would have somehow converted all those tiny jockstraps into props for an episode of testosterone seizures. Samuels simply provides a modest glimpse of camaraderie.
When Samuels writes portraiture, he blends dialogue and observed detail in a manner that is insightful and aesthetically pleasing. Here he is describing an afternoon drive with Bill "the Spaceman" Lee, an all-star relief pitcher who played for the Boston Red Sox in the 1970s:
The Spaceman loves driving. He knows the roads of Vermont like the back of his hand. "That's Mount Mansfield right through there," he says. "That's the highest point in Vermont." On our way back from Montreal, he calls out the name of every tree that he passes, oak, maple, birch, lemon spruce, white pines, a Whitmanesque litany that leads him in turn to naming the different types of rocks that make up a mountain, which leads in turn to the deeper subject of geological time. Man is only a speck in the universe, he observes, before returning back to earth. "That's a sugar house," he says. When you find a moth in your syrup bucket, he adds, that's when you know that maple syrup season is over.
The cadences of the declarative sentences, at first staccato, then languid, create an enticing gentle rhythm. The image of the moth trapped in syrup foreshadows the story's concluding scene, in which Lee's car gets stuck in mud at the top of a Vermont mountain, a predicament that symbolizes his difficulties with his family and baseball. A delicate mosaic of an individual sensibility, Samuels's description of Lee is a journalistic prose poem (least of all because it mentions Whitman). It's also the antithesis of Wolfe's overwrought, clamorous prose.
In a 2005 appreciation of Joan Didion's career that appeared in The New York Review of Books, John Leonard offers an EKG of her novels and essays: "Didion has always juxtaposed the hardware and the soft: hummingbirds and the FBI; nightmares of infant death and the light at dawn for a Pacific bomb test.... Against the 'hydraulic imagery' of the clandestine world, its conduits and pipelines and diversions, she opposes a gravitational imagery of black holes and weightlessness." Like Didion, Samuels investigates the vortex of American life, a feeling of weightlessness and existential drift that can swallow people whole, but he reports on it in an entirely different manner.
Didion has often reminded me of the character of Tod Hackett in Nathanael West's novel The Day of the Locust: the sensitive aesthete trying to break into Hollywood by remaining on the edge of the crowd, nerves bruised into forming delicate observations about people made savage and bitter by power, boredom and disappointment. While Samuels keeps some critical distance between himself and his subjects, he doesn't hesitate from lunging into the scrum. In "The Blind Man and the Elephant," he mingles with the crowd outside the stadium gates and hangs out with support crew in the stadium's bowels during the game. (One imagines Didion observing the game from the NFL commissioner's skybox or a network's satellite truck.) In "Bringing Down the House," a fascinating account of the demolition of the Sands Hotel published in 1997, he divides his time between the drifters washing up in the bars and parking lots of Las Vegas and the demo crew meticulously preparing the Sands for implosion. The crew grows so fond of Samuels that they let him throw the detonator switch for a test blast: "on the count of five I flick the second and final silver switch, an act that is instantly rewarded by a rush of pure adrenaline to my brain and a boom that resonates in the center of my chest."
One virtue of such close-to-the-skin reporting is that it often immunizes Samuels against condescension, especially the sort that has periodically starched Didion's sentences with a crisp severity, as in this late-'60s snapshot of Joan Baez: "So now the girl whose life is a crystal teardrop has her own place, a place where the sun shines and the ambiguities can be set aside a little while longer." Instead of studying crystal teardrops, Samuels throws a spotlight on the "sucker's ballet" of Americans struggling to make sly and small improvements on the limitations of the given without being swallowed whole by their own or someone else's imposture or fraud.
For the most part, his subjects aren't protagonists in a culture war or political battles. Only Love Can Break Your Heart has just two pieces on politics: a story about how the press was mostly hoodwinked by the Pentagon's disinformation campaign in the early stages of the invasion of Afghanistan and a piece about the dismal stagecraft of a fundraiser for George W. Bush during the 2004 election. Samuels is drawn to middle-class strivers and lower-class knockabouts stuck in pedestrian struggles. In "400,000 Salesmen Can't Be Wrong!" he hangs out with Ed Kustanovich, a middle-aged Russian immigrant and structural engineer who, desperate to improve his station in life, is lured into a get-rich-quick scheme operated by an outfit called ACN. The company offers what it calls "the Opportunity," a chance for strivers like Kustanovich to augment their income by selling a utilities package promising low rates in newly deregulated energy and telecommunications markets. But the Opportunity is a pyramid scheme: only the people at the top make money, by investing the $499 joining fee collected from each new sales rep. As an apostate ACN member tells Samuels, the Opportunity is "a way of controlling people's minds by exploiting their capacity for belief."
Samuels brushed against a similar Opportunity at Woodstock '99. There, "the selfishness and irresponsibility of the promoters" -- old hippies gone daft -- turned a three-day "prepackaged Information Age Happening" attended by 225,000 concertgoers into an orgy of violence. That year Samuels also visited Derby Lane Greyhound Park in St. Petersburg, Florida. It's ten years after the introduction of a state lottery and other forms of legalized gambling in Florida, which have cut deeply into dog tracks' revenues. The track owners reacted by increasing their percentage of the skim from the betting pool. As Samuels explains in the title piece of Only Love Can Break Your Heart, that move created such unfavorable odds that the purpose of the dog tracks essentially became "the extraction of ready cash from the dwindling local population of retirees, single mothers, deadbeats, scam artists, and liars." The Opportunity is revealed to be naked desperation at the dog track, where, Samuels writes, "America's belief in good luck goes to die."
Opportunities and sucker's ballets flourished during the age of the Mini-Moos, but in reality neither is unique to the '90s. They're primeval elements of American life, part of an existential vortex whose origins can be traced back at least to the early decades of the nineteenth century, as Samuels explained in a 1999 New Yorker piece about Gilded Age confidence men (it is not included in the current collection). "If the dream of self-invention was profoundly democratic," he writes, "it was also an open invitation to fraud." One reason Samuels is fascinated by James Hogue is that the long-distance runner and con man, tricked out in an identity tailored to the dimensions of his marks' credulity, is the American vortex incarnate. "The record of James Hogue's life is marked by blank spaces, and by a series of deliberate distortions and erasures," Samuels writes. He notes that when the police arrived at Princeton to arrest Hogue, their suspect was attending a geology lecture about "large-scale structural phenomena such as faulting and folding that are associated with violent ruptures in the surface of the earth."
The point is subtle and unmistakable. The American dream of self-invention -- "I wanted to start all over again, without the burdens of my past," Hogue told one of the booking officers -- is not only part of the birthright of every American, according to Samuels, but also inseparable from formidable forces of destruction. Around the time I began reading The Runner and Only Love Can Break Your Heart, the New York Times published a perky front-page item about how high school students at Boston Latin are taught The Great Gatsby as an inspirational story about striving for your dreams. Samuels mentions that Hogue, too, had read Gatsby in his teens, and his depiction of the dark sinews of Hogue's character squashes the glorification of Gatsby like a gnat. The novelist who created Jay Gatsby -- who in the book is the child of the imagination of the hayseed-turned-bootlegger Jay Gatz -- would have understood.
Because The Runner is a book about con games and lies, Samuels occasionally turns it into a meditation on the morally dubious aspects of journalism. "The question of how writers come to appropriate the lives of the people they write about is a tricky one," he says. "While it is facile to equate journalism with lying, it is also true that both actions share in common an unpleasantly instrumental approach to people and to language that diminishes the common store of trust. The subject has no power to alter a reporter's approach to his or her subject, or to take back a single word that they said." Samuels's reservations recall those expressed by Janet Malcolm in the famous opening sentences of The Journalist and the Murderer: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse." For Malcolm, Hogue would be the perfect subject, a one-way mirror for endless self-scrutiny; for Samuels, however, while remorseless acts of imposture and dissembling similar to Hogue's are traps that can snare any journalist, they are not unavoidable ones. If anything, Samuels's articles are a reminder that Malcolm's charge about journalism always being "morally indefensible" is something of an exaggeration. As Samuels explains in Only Love Can Break Your Heart, the greatest threat to journalistic truth is not necessarily a writer betraying a subject or a story being "filtered through the individual sensibility of a writer." Rather, it's "the self-enclosed space of 'news' reporting" that provides a buffet of canned political opinions and heaping portions of calorie-free tidbits about matters of great importance like a celebrity's most recent DWI or the vapid musings of a vampish ex-blogger.
Where Malcolm sees a moral impasse, which she cultivates with indefatigable reporting and fertilizes with pitiless irony, Samuels sees moral ambiguity and relies on indefatigable reporting to try to surmount it. Samuels followed Hogue's story for nearly fifteen years. His first account of the con man appeared in the Washington Post in 1995. His New Yorker piece about Hogue was published six years later, and The Runner seven years after that. It's a story that took Samuels to Princeton, Telluride and Hogue's hometown in Kansas, that led him to public records and private papers and demanded that he clock many hours with Hogue's childhood friends, Princeton classmates and Colorado marks. All the stories in Only Love Can Break Your Heart were written over the course of weeks and months instead of years, but they are just as much the product of solid reporting. Even when Samuels covers a short event like Woodstock '99, he manages to tell a story rich with conversation, color and conflict; he immerses himself in a place and characterizes its mood. This explains why one doesn't find anywhere in his writing the false notes of intimacy that litter the pages of magazines, those sentences in which a reporter drops the name of the hip restaurant where an interview occurred over a lunch of Kobe beef and wild mushroom martinis, or treats the contents of a handbag or an iPod as a window into a subject's soul. Such sentences are written to make us believe the writer to be a citizen of the subject's world, when in fact all the writer has is a tourist visa or a lunch pass.
By blending extensive research with what Gay Talese has called "the fine art of hanging out," Samuels often manages to connect meaningfully with his subjects and depict their messy lives with sympathy, insight and grace. He writes with a delicately modulated voice, one that, like the lyrics on Neil Halstead's Sleeping on Roads (which Samuels notes he once found addictive), "privileges tenderness over anger and resignation over bite." Yet he is no fetishist of the fringe. When Samuels visits the Derby Lane Greyhound Park, he spends a lot of time hanging out with Jay Sizemore, the manager of the track and the lender of last resort for regulars fighting a long streak of hard luck. At one point Sizemore philosophizes about why the touts and valets make their daily pilgrimage to the dingy Derby Lane, and his explanation of their relationship to the track refers equally to the complicated bonds that link Samuels to Sizemore and the other kindred spirits in these two alluring books: "It's like a family.... You're supposed to learn from experience in life, but life's too short to learn from your own experiences.... So when I think about it, I guess I understand why you're here."
John Palattella is literary editor of The Nation. His essays and reviews about poetry have appeared in numerous publications, including The Nation, the London Review of Books, Bookforum and Boston Review.
Books mentioned in this post