Friday, February 1, 2013

Inaugural Meeting of The Vintage Project Book Club

What Makes Sammy Run? 

Budd Schulberg, 1941

I now call to order the inaugural meeting of The Vintage Project Book Club.  Per usual, I'm running a tad behind schedule... In addition to discussing the book, I would like to state for the record that I'm amending the terms of the club to one book a month - that should give me enough time to fully get my shit together.

And now onto more pressing matters - our first novel.  'What Makes Sammy Run?'  I want to start by saying that I really loved it.  There are so many things going on in this novel - the way I couldn't help being drawn to Sammy regardless of his actions, the fact that the way Schulberg describes Hollywood is very similar to my own love/hate relationship with it, and lastly a big part of the appeal for me was the fact that it was written in 1941 and that being reflected in the way people spoke.  Idioms like 'take a powder' are sprinkled through the story which lends a certain charm.

I found a really great used copy from 1952.  I adore old books.

This is the story of Sammy Glick, a young man who is at one turn naively charming and at the next turn, ruthlessly manipulative.  The title of the novel makes sense for different reasons at various points throughout the story.  When we first meet him, he is the office boy at The New York Record, literally running copy through the office.  Our narrator, Al Manheim who is a columnist at the paper, quickly becomes pseudo-obsessed with Sammy.  "I suppose the reason Sammy was getting my goat was because he was the smartest and the stupidest human being I had ever met".  He frequently finds himself at the bar asking over and over "Why does Sammy run?"  Sammy's running and manipulating quickly lands him in Hollywood in the 'picture business'.

Shortly after Sammy lands in Hollywood, Manheim gets a screenwriting opportunity that puts the two characters back together again.  The third character is quickly established and I find her as integral as New York was to Sex and the City.  Hollywood in its Golden Age is alluring and intoxicating while being prolifically sad as written by Schulberg.  "It was a montage of hot music, drunken laughter, loud wisecracks and hostesses like lollipops in red, green and yellow wrappers. The music took the old sweet melodies and twisted them like hairpins. It was a symphony strictly from hunger, to which everybody beat their feet in a frenzy of despair, trying to forget luck that was either too good or too bad, festered ambitions or hollow successes."  That's still the feeling I get in bars and clubs in Hollywood and the author also nails the feeling of leaving these establishments: "Outside it was good to just stand there a moment and let the wind sweeping down the Strip from the sea blow the liquor fumes and the smoke and the chatter of simultaneous voices out of your mind."  And as you get up out of the city, the beauty of the lights and the stillness is something that I will never stop marveling at. "We drove up the steep winding road to her house near the top of the hills. The night was clear and it seemed as if the world was full of nothing but little pulsing lights above us and below us. It was so beautiful you thought you ought to say something about it, but there was nothing good enough to say."

Sammy finds himself right at home in this new landscape of the cutthroat movie industry.  He knows how to sell ideas before he's had them, take all credit when he gets someone else to turn those ideas into screenplays, how to generate his own press, and be in the right places with the right people to allow him to continue getting ahead, no matter the cost.  While Sammy seldom cares about who he has to hurt, manipulate, or step on, Al continues to glimpse snippets of humanity in Sammy and does his best to step in and right some of Sammy's wrongs.  "...I knew that my best excuse for knowing Sammy Glick was a kind of self-appointed first aid station, trying to revive the victims he left behind him as he kept hitting and running his way to the top."  Glick is such a well written character, that you can't fully hate him and the negative aspects of both the character and the Hollywood machine never taint the book.  The story moves quickly and I found it very easy to get caught up in it.  This was Schulberg's first novel and it created such a stir that Samuel Goldwyn, the studio head, reportedly offered him hundreds of thousands of dollars NOT to publish it.  He then went on to pen several screenplays including the classic 'On the Waterfront', for which he won as Oscar.

While Schulberg had written what some considered to be a savage indictment of the industry, the love of this city and motion pictures is palpable: "The trouble with Hollywood is that too many people who won't leave are ashamed to be there. But when a moving picture is right, it socks the eye and the ear and the solar plexus all at once and that is a hell of  a temptation for any writer... Hollywood may be full of phonies, mediocrities, dictators and good men who have lost their way, but there is something that draws you there that you should not be ashamed of."

What did you think Kittens?  Did you enjoy the first book?  Did you have a different take on it than I did?

No comments:

Post a Comment