By putting out two books simultaneously, an author takes a number of risks. The public may confuse the two, media outlets might not know which one to cover, and readers could very well pick a favorite and leave the other stranded—or at the Strand. Journalist David Samuels has no fear of these mishaps, releasing a double dose of nonfiction, The Runner and Only Love Can Break Your Heart, in similarly designed editions. According to his blurbs, Samuels has threatened to leave behind the magazine journalism he’s written for Harper’s, The New Yorker, and others, so this pair of books represents both a debut and a curtain call. Both books are always competent, occasionally brilliant, sometimes tedious—and while one is worth investigating, the other is worth devouring.
If you’ve only got $30 or can’t make a decision, pick up The Runner first. For starters, it costs a few dollars less. While it might seem logical to start with Only Love, which provides a lengthy introduction to Samuels’s reporting—ranging from a look inside the rehab center Hazelden to a profile of a blimp pilot—The Runner‘s intriguing narrative sticks closer to the author’s heart and remains centered on one person: James Hogue, a drifter and con man who fraudulently attends Princeton, among other strange crimes.
Samuels’s talent is considerable, but in Only Love, somewhat lopsided. He’s a savant when it comes to scene reporting and has a nearly autistic command of minor details and facts. Armed with minutiae, he achieves the glorious breadth and detail of a mural painter in his renderings of the disastrous Woodstock ’99 and the 1997 demolition of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. His literary eye, however, recalls the modern documentary film—the sort pioneered by the Maysles Brothers, in which images and words rush past with minimal opinion, context, or anything else that might provide perspective. His style may have developed as a method of preserving a journalistic neutrality in which few still believe, and that’s certainly a noble cause. But some of his subjects deserve an angle: “On Message,” his piece about Donald Rumsfeld, suffers from a creepy lack of bias, and in “Buried Suns,” an overlong dissection of the culture around Nevada nuclear-test sites, Samuels’s dry tone clashes with subject matter that’s far more vital and exciting than his piece.
Samuels’s slimmer volume tells the story of Hogue, an intelligent, well-read con man who, among other ruses, enters Princeton’s class of 1993 at age 29 under the alias Alexi Santana. Santana, as Hogue constructs him, is an Ivy League admissions-office wet dream: “[His] score of 1410 on the SAT was well above the average of students admitted to Princeton, and his Hispanic-sounding surname likely recommended him for special consideration as a minority applicant. But his personal essay, the story of a self-educated ranch hand who read Plato under the stars, lifted his application to the top of the pile.” Hogue had excelled at distance running in high school—one thing he didn’t fake—but in order to maintain a low profile at Princeton, he would often throw races. In the end, a woman who recognized him as an imposter from her past spoiled his Princeton career.
Hogue’s crimes don’t approach the lethal or the grandiose: He pilfers $50K in gems from Harvard while posing as a security guard, defrauds Princeton out of a financial-aid package, and steals lots of smaller items from various suckers. His main talent, though, at least for Samuels, is sleight of identity. The author, Brooklyn-bred and educated at Harvard and Princeton, identifies with Hogue in the way that nearly anyone of humble birth who attended elite schools periodically suspects themselves, or their institutions, of fraud. For Samuels, Hogue’s successful fakery “was exhibit A in [his] personal catalog of reasons why the Ivy League should be abolished”; he pronounces him a small-time Gatsby, epitomizing the American spirit of self-invention gone awry.
Samuels’s view of Hogue as a trickster who critiques social trust by breaking it—dubious though it seems—energizes the search for the author’s alter ego. Paradoxically, Samuels uses Hogue to seek revenge on these institutions for letting him in. “Accepting my ticket to an Ivy League college,” he gripes, “made me a willing participant in the greater fraud of a meritocracy in which some were ordained more equal than others.”
While describing, in a highly nonlinear style, Hogue’s fascinating tale of deception and the mystery of identity, the self-incriminating Samuels leads the reader through a series of rhetorical convulsions. These spasms of logic enable him to forgive Hogue’s crimes, view them through the dewy lens of literature, and use them to pacify his own demons. Toward the middle of the book, when he contacts Hogue, the con man is naturally cagey. Hogue claims that Samuels’s questions about his need to fictionalize his life confuse him and fires his own snarky questions back at his interviewer: “1. Are you greatly dismayed by the sum of your life?” The book is terse, passionate, and complicated, and while some of Only Love Can Break Your Heart can match its virtues, The Runner easily outpaces its competitor.