One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it to someone else. This is true because when you teach something, you get to learn it twice.
That’s why, on my way to reading 1,000 books, I stop and share the best insights, stories, and lessons here on Medium.
Today’s book is book #883, and it’s called What Makes Sammy Run?, by Budd Schulberg. Let’s hit it!
Too many of us know a Sammy Glick.
He’s the guy who takes all the credit for your group project, steps on anyone who blocks his ascension to the top of his chosen hierarchy, and is only aware of you if he thinks you can help him.
What Makes Sammy Run? was published in 1941, and it’s the story of a copy-boy-turned-Hollywood-executive named Sammy Glick who rises to the top on the bent backs of others and finds that there’s no one and nothing at the top beside his own emptiness.
It’s a cautionary tale about power, ambition, and greed, and although Hollywood is the natural setting, the world can seem overrun with Glicks.
The story is told by Al Manheim, who starts off the novel with Glick at a newspaper in New York and essentially becomes his only friend, as Glick dives deeper into his own narcissism and paranoia.
“Even though Sammy knew I could read him like the top line of an optometrist’s chart, he also knew that he could relax with me because I wasn’t willing or didn’t know how to use him for a ladder the way he used me.”
The book has a snappiness to it that suits the story perfectly. Every sentence is sharp and spare, and Schulberg leads you to exactly where he wants you to go. Thus, it’s a fast read. And immensely satisfying.
Check out these one-liners:
“I stared at Sammy as if I were practicing to be an X-Ray machine.”
“When I woke again around four I had a bad taste in my mouth and a worse one in my mind and all I thought about was getting out of there as quickly as possible.”
“Going through life with a conscience is like driving your car with the brakes on.”
“She smiled at me as if she was going to laugh and then remembered she didn’t have time.”
Ha! So ’40s. I love it.
While you’d think that the book is leading to a major comeuppance with respect to Mr. Glick, we’re kept waiting for the hammer to drop and for Glick’s choices to catch up to him.
We’re left thinking that evil goes unpunished while good men sit back and do nothing.
But the emptiness that I alluded to earlier has been there the whole time and never leaves Mr. Glick for a second to give him peace or a sense of accomplishment. It’s always ‘on to the next one.’
Waiting for the emptiness to dissipate and his life to appear real to him. For real companionship to arrive.
“I drove back slowly, heavy with the exhaustion I always felt after being with Sammy too long. I thought of him wandering alone through all his brightly lit rooms. Not only tonight, but all the nights of his life. No matter where he would ever be, at banquets, at gala house parties, in crowded night clubs, in big poker games, at intimate dinners, he would still be wandering alone through all his brightly lit rooms.”
Maybe comeuppance would miss him, but something else is coming:
“I thought how, unconsciously, I had been waiting for justice suddenly to rise up and smite him in all its vengeance, secretly hoping to be around when Sammy got what was coming to him; only I had been expecting something conclusive and fatal and now I realized that what was coming to him was not a sudden pay-off but a process, a disease he had caught in the epidemic that swept over his birthplace like plague; a cancer that was slowly eating him away, the symptoms developing and intensifying: success, loneliness, fear. Fear of all the bright young men, the newer, fresher Sammy Glicks that would spring up to harass him, to threaten him and finally to overtake him.”
I don’t hate Sammy Glick. Neither does Al Manheim or even Budd Schulberg. We’re not meant to hate him, but to realize that there is a gaping void that awaits anyone who refuses to see the reality of others.
I learned early on that you can anything you want in life, so long as you help enough other people get what they want. That may be one of the only things that come close to a shortcut in life.
And it’s not wrong to succeed. You can make it. There’s something in humans that drives us to achieve things.
“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.”
But you can reach the heights of success in many different ways, by various routes, and how you climb the mountain is going to be more important to your happiness than whether you reach the top.
All the best,