Starting with a burst of kinetic energy that unfortunately peters out due to repetition, What Makes Sammy Run? is the story of an ambitious climber stepping over others to get ahead in the Hollywood of the late 1930s. Narrated by his conflicted, fascinated and repulsed compatriot Al Manheim, the novel is an exploration of obsession, both the one Sammy has for power, and the one Al has with Sammy. Al is a genial guy who wants people to like him and think he’s a good guy, and defines success along those lines, whereas Sammy has internalized the more perniciously capitalistic standard of success.
Unfortunately, Al’s ceaseless examination of Sammy quickly grows monotonous, and even though that is pretty much the whole point it still doesn’t make for a fun read. Sammy’s rocket trip to the top of the studio system is utilized for Schulberg to ponder the implications of the American system over and over again.
What Makes Sammy Run? is more entertaining when it gets into the nitty-gritty of the movie business. Schulberg is gifted at filling his alternate-dimension Los Angeles with realistic Hollywood types and extremely plausible fake movies. He also outlines the struggles of the screenwriters of the day to form a respectable union. More of that kind of stuff would make for a truly captivating novel. Instead, Schulberg belabors his point, causing the reader to tune out the message.