In 1988, Princeton University accepted an orphan with an eye-catching résumé. Seventeen-year-old Alexi Santana hadn’t been to school but had picked up his education while working in Utah as a cattle herder, a construction worker and a racehorse exerciser. He had read Plato while sleeping under the stars. He could be reached only by post office box, he said, because his home address was the Utah-Arizona line. It all sounded very romantic, very Huck Finn. He also had outstanding SAT scores. What clinched the deal, though, was that Santana could run like the wind, and the Princeton track coach saw him as an invaluable addition to the team.
“By accepting the barefoot shepherd . . . ,” writes David Samuels in “The Runner,” “the university hoped to demonstrate that a Princeton degree was proof of some inherent personal merit, rather than a cunning device by which members of the American professional elite might pass on their social status and earning power to their children.”
Santana deferred his entry to Princeton for a year, but when he did arrive, he put in a stellar performance, taking six or seven courses a semester and getting A’s in nearly all of them. Other students liked him because he was gentle and inquisitive, though they noticed he rarely made eye contact. “You never really saw his face, even when he was in front of you,” one remembered. Santana was known as “Sexy Alexi” and was invited to join the Ivy, “the oldest and most illustrious of Princeton’s elite eating clubs and the former haunt of James Baker and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia,” as Samuels notes. Santana was tapped for a Rhodes scholarship.
Then the roof caved in. In February 1991, Santana was spotted at a Harvard-Yale-Princeton track meet by somebody who knew him from, literally, another life. The truth came out: Alexi Santana was more than 10 years older than he claimed to be and wasn’t even Alexi Santana. His real name was James Hogue, a serial impostor who had been born in Kansas and delayed his entry to Princeton because he’d been in jail for theft. Now, once again, he’d been ambushed by his past, always a problem for those who embark on a typically American course of self-reinvention in too flamboyant a way. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” as Faulkner wrote, and it has a nasty habit of bashing in the head of present-day fantasists.
These themes haunt author David Samuels, it’s fair to say, and he’s been on Hogue’s trail for more than a decade now. “The Runner” comes in two parts: The first, “Telluride,” deals with Hogue’s post-Princeton impostures in Colorado that ended with him being handed a 10-year prison sentence last year; the second, “Princeton,” is a slightly reworked version of the stunning piece that Samuels published in the New Yorker in September 2001. Samuels has taken the opportunity to revisit the work and put back in some of the bits that didn’t make it into the magazine version, an understandable impulse, but maybe a mistake. “Princeton” feels choppy in tone, and frills and small errors that weren’t there before have been introduced. Was Steve Prefontaine an “Olympic champion”? I seem to remember the Finn Lasse Virén winning that famous race at the Munich Games in 1972.
Samuels isn’t the best organizer of his own material, and “The Runner” is a little messy and discursive. It’s a quest without any definite point, like “Citizen Kane” without Rosebud. Still, Samuels strikes off wonderful observations: “Hogue was a convicted fabulist who attempted again and again to impose the freaks of the imagination on the world around him, a practice that struck me as being particularly American in vein. Americans are fibbers. Our national literature celebrates the whopper and the tall tale, beginning with the story of the boy who could not tell a lie.”
Most important, and perhaps not unrelated to the way he circles the narrative, Samuels makes us feel Hogue’s hollow sadness. “The Runner” is haunting in its presentation of a life at once self-expanding and self-destructive. Putting on a mask is dangerous, as Oscar Wilde discovered, when one can’t escape the social vengeance that his characters vaulted so airily beyond in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Confidence often crashes to the ground like a stricken blimp. “Sometimes it’s hard to say what my name is,” said the legendary 1950s impostor Fred Demara when caught. Hogue also loses track of himself. He wants to be unreal for reasons that remain unfathomed. “The story of his life would have little, if anything, to do with whatever version of the story I might choose to write,” Samuels notes.
This is no writerly cop-out, but a profound truth about the slipperiness of identity. Hogue rarely exults in putting one over. He’s not a classic con man in that way. The several thousand stolen objects secreted in a hidden room in his Telluride basement, “a comical mix of expensive furnishings and junk,” weren’t theft for gain but fragments stored against his ruin. Class rage and resentment -- subjects on which Samuels is very good -- may have been driving factors in Hogue’s imposture at the outset, but it was some fear inside that kept him running. Samuels succeeds in showing a man who’s not really sure if he even exists.
“It comes hardly as news to even the most casual fan of the mongrel art of writing literature on deadline that the great American magazines are dead or dying,” Samuels writes in his preface to “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” a companion book that collects 19 of his pieces. It’s true that big-time American magazine writing is part privilege, part craft, part torture. A piece of journalistic meat is fed into an editorial grinder and eventually, out pops a sausage. Sometimes, the sausage is tasty, even a delicacy; other times, it’s pretty mangled. A GQ article is flavored differently from one in Harper’s. The New Yorker minces its meat to an awesome, airless smoothness. The New York Times Magazine specializes in the removal of all flavor.
Samuels has written for all these publications, and more, so the tone in the pieces varies from the overtly personal “Being Paul McCartney” (for the online magazine Nerve), a reverie about why the author will always prefer John Lennon; to the somber investigation for the New York Times of James Kopp, who was convicted of murdering Dr. Barnett Slepian, an abortion provider. In “The Light Stuff” (a New Yorker piece), he meets the straight-on guys who have the job of piloting the Goodyear blimp out of Carson, Calif. In “400,000 Salesmen Can’t Be Wrong!” (also for the New Yorker), a pyramid scheme and con men with wildly hopeful dreams command his attention.
Samuels has a wonderful feeling for the weirdness and truths of self-contained worlds. The title piece, and the last in the book, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” was done for Harper’s and is perhaps the best of all, evoking the exotic and downbeat milieu of a dying Florida dog track. Here, Jay Sizemore, “a slight man with still, lean features that magnify the darting, watchful eyes of a small woodland animal,” tells Samuels about the special breed of bettors who have managed to “snake a living off the dogs":
“Mobile Mike was an attorney, and a hell of a man. He won the pick-six once, and someone followed him to a hotel room and beat his head in. He ain’t never been the same since. . . . There was Billy Duarte, who had a photographic memory and was the most intelligent man I have ever met in my life. You have men like Howie Lincoln out of West Memphis and John Robinson in Orlando, who chase the bigger pools via satellite. . . . [Boston Jamie] used to work with Howie Lincoln when Howie was living up in the penthouse of Caesars Palace in Vegas and betting on everything -- dogs, horses, sports, you name it.”
The writing is Joseph Mitchell-meets-Elmore Leonard, and a whole subculture comes to life. If Samuels is right, and the markets that will pay for the time and skill to produce this kind of work are being killed by the blogosphere, then maybe these pieces will stand as some kind of swan song. One hopes not. Samuels is heir to an American tradition, and writing this terrific needs a place to go. *
Richard Rayner is the author, most recently, of “The Associates.” He also writes the monthly Paperback Writers column at www.latimes.com/books.
A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures \of the Ivy League Impostor James Hogue
David SamuelsNew Press: 176 pp., $22.95**
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
David SamuelsNew Press: 372 pp., $26.95