(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

What Makes Sammy Run? tells of the rise to riches and fame of Shmelka Glickstein, who when he was five years old began to change his name to Sammy Glick. The action spans the 1930’s, moving from New York to Hollywood (and briefly back to New York again). The title not only names the novel’s central character but also asks the novel’s major question: What makes Sammy do what he does?

Sammy’s tale, which is told by a newspaperman named Al Manheim, proceeds chronologically, with flashbacks when other characters tell Manheim their Sammy stories. Manheim marks very clearly the stages of Sammy’s development. At first Sammy, aged about seventeen, is only a copy boy at the New York Record. Not only does he run his errands faster than anyone else, but he also angles to improve himself; he learns points of grammar from Manheim. Sammy is confident, aggressive, ambitious, opportunistic, and attuned to the moment. He bides his time until he gets a column of his own—about the new medium, radio.

Sammy’s next stage comes when an unassuming writer named Julian Blumberg brings him a script to review. Sammy, who is not creative or even a writer, sees the script’s potential. Sammy telephones a leading Hollywood agent and sells the story for five thousand dollars. Sammy is thus off to Hollywood, abandoning Blumberg and a naïve girlfriend, and after a few months, Manheim follows him.

Sammy is now a young screenwriter striving to get ahead. When he shows Manheim around, he dresses in a...

(The entire section is 629 words.)