“What Makes Sammy Run?” by Budd Schulberg – book review

My favourite description of someone writing under the influence doesn’t come from Hemingway, Bukowski or any of the usual suspects – instead, it’s from the fourth page of What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg.

Published in 1941, this satire of success revolves around Sammy Glick, an insatiably ambitious copyboy who rapidly becomes a Hollywood mogul due to sheer shamelessness and chutzpah. Compared to him, Entourage’s Ari Gold is a mild-mannered pussy.

Sammy is an unsympathetic force of nature – but what anchors this novel is the narrator, Al Manheim, a newspaper hack who watches Sammy’s meteoric rise through whiskey-tinted lenses.

Al is repulsed by the young copyboy’s obnoxious ruthlessness – and yet is also mesmerised, to the point where he finds himself in a bar asking the bewildered bartender, “What makes Sammy run?”

The barman, naturally, tells Al he’s drunk and should have another drink to quieten down – which leads Al to go back to his newspaper office “with an awful load on”.

“I had to bat out my column on what seemed like six typewriters at the same time,” Al says – and trust me when I say that’s exactly what typing while being drunk feels like.

In What Makes Sammy Run?, martinis and highballs don’t just serve as décor but actually drive the novel along almost as much as Sammy’s hunger for success. A novel of its era, some of its characters knock back more liquor in a night than I consume in a week – and yet there’s none of the repression or guilt or regret that modern novels so often mix with alcohol. Instead, here liquor lubricates events and acts as a catalyst in which people’s better, worse and more vulnerable sides are revealed.

“I don’t really believe that liquor will cure all the ills in our society,” Al says at one point. “But two or three slugs often cure our curious inability to know each other. Unless we know people well, we sit around with our words and our minds starched, afraid of being ourselves for fear of wrinkling them.”

It’s at this point I’ll stop writing, fix myself a highball and urge you to read What Makes Sammy Run? for yourself.

Dorothy Parker once said this novel, which hit the literary (and Hollywood) scene like a bomb when it came out, has “understanding, pity, savagery, courage and sometimes a strange high beauty.”

I certainly couldn’t describe it any better than that.

Rating: 5 out of 5

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