May 2008

Richard Wirick

nonfiction

The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures of the Ivy League Imposter James Hogue by David Samuels

There is something in us that bends over to the zipper-dropping con man. We like the prospect of a bargain. Unlike most Europeans, Americans tend to tolerate the stranger with a story, even if his narrative is stitched so obviously with entreaty. We trust because we expect others to trust us: as the ethicist Bernard Williams points out, it is fundamental to our image of ourselves that we see others as having the veracity we assume we possess. It is easier to trust, less stressful than suspicion and more conducive to psychic peace. It becomes a habit. Like the dying family pet, we instinctually raise our paw to everyone, even the vet whose glove hides the waiting needle full of pentathol.

The con memoir reached its post-war high tide with Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception (1979), the story of Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff’s legendary sire-snookerer, a man who faked prep school, military and college records to land himself on the boards of General Electric and ITT. John le Carré’s father was also a celebrated broker of non-existent real estate and thoroughbreds, continuing it on into his children’s adulthoods by begging them, prostrate, for bail money with hands around their knees and cries of “Not prison again, not at my age.” It worked.

Now comes David Samuels’s The Runner, the story of a brilliant petty thief, James Hogue, who re-tooled himself as the self-educated ranch hand Alexi Indris-Santana. Hogue’s cons would classify him as crazy under many sections of the DSM-IV, but to look on his actions that simply would be to miss the fact he latched on to the American Dream and the way it allows, encourages, even decorates the wide latitudes sometimes necessary for self-invention.

The book approaches Hogue through anecdotes of his property theft victims, rich doctor-lawyer ski denizens of Telluride, Colorado, who let him manage their real estate deals and chalet refurbishments, only to find themselves short of hundreds of gallons of propane and board-feet of rare Honduran mahogany paneling. Samuels’s initial explorations fail here: the swindled grousers, still stunned and remaining at still stratospheric levels of wealth, are full of defensive, shameful cliché and can’t give any original insights into Hogue’s motivational pathology. Samuels spends the first third of the book poking and poking for a good vein, but simply cannot tap one up.

The Runner gets its momentum when Hogue’s schemes become grander and paradoxically victimless, i.e. when he applies as an affirmative action admittee to the Princeton class of 1992. Actually born in 1969 to a self-employed potter and a Mexican sculptress of some success, Hogue’s “personal statement” transfigured him into a Plato-reading, physics-obsessed, marathon-running drifter that played into Ivy admissions committees’ endless capacity for class guilt and grasping, ill-advised mold-breaking. Here is where the book gets brilliant:

What "Santana" offered Princeton was a storybook universe that embodied all the requisite multicultural virtues at the same time as it hearkened back to the mythic virtues of the unspoiled West. What the physicist Feynman (oft-quoted in Hogue’s autobiographical essay and who was famous for squiggles and lines simplifying subatomic encounters) did in writing about science, Hogue would do by inventing the character of Alexi Indris-Santana, who could appeal to the prejudices of Ivy admissions officers [with] a fairy tale they might understand: even the most advanced science was a way of approximating and communicating a reality that was actually quite different from what was being described. The most advanced minds, with the most advanced degrees… believed that intellectual life was a sophisticated species of fraud. In conclusion, the applicant wrote, “The best that I can hope for from all of this is to emulate Feynman’s attitude that science turns out to be essentially a long history of learning how not to fool ourselves.” It was useful advice, which the Princeton admissions office had no intention of taking.

This is a little over-stated, especially its sweeping reduction of intellectualism-as-fraud. But it captures beautifully America’s barriers to entry to education and wealth, the last thirty-five years of attempts to level that playing field with new “diversity” boundaries and rules of play, and how the ball takes its funniest bounces when a dishonest, brilliant aspirant comes off the bench to work it all.

Oddly, Hogue is outed when, among other incidents, one of his professors, remembering the boy’s touting of his Western ruggedness, notices that Hogue is petrified of a minor lightning storm on a hike with fellow students and Boulder outreach staffers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. After an interview (why exactly 150 questions?) with Princeton’s academic ethics staff and further background checks, Hogue is revealed to be an ex-convict from Utah who had jumped his parole and engaged in similar deceptions. The University decides that, despite his straight-A standing and otherwise unblemished disciplinary record, since Hogue applied to the school with false information, his attendance, his very existence at Princeton, had to be completely expunged from its records. He had entered as a fiction, and would leave as a sort of meta-fiction. The next day, New Jersey state detectives asked his surprised geology professor to have him step out of class, handcuffed him, and booked him for extradition to Utah.

Then things got really interesting. Opinion among students and faculty at Princeton was evenly divided between those who thought Hogue guilty of little more than a desire to get a good education, and others who saw him merely as a criminal who should be off the premises. The first school of thought invoked his 1410 SATs, his constant presence on the dean’s list, his election to the elite Ivy Club. The latter group saw a homeless drifter’s ability to exceed at one of the country’s top colleges as beside the point: he could have bettered himself with less fanfare, entirely legitimately, at a lesser caliber university. Hogue’s attorney, Robert Obler, hoped to put Princeton on trial before a jury and show the boy as a young long distance runner who had tried simply to better himself in the best way he could imagine. Instead, Hogue appeared before a Mercer County judge and pled guilty to undisclosed counts of theft by deception.

More layers of the onion unpeeled. Justin Harmin, the sprightly Princeton PR spokesman charged with saving the face of academe, continued pointing out that "Santana" was a model applicant in every respect except “for the fact he was a fictional character.” (I am not making this up.) Upon his expulsion, and from recommendations by that geology professor, he became a sub-curator at Harvard’s museum of precious minerals and gems. Soon more than $40,000 worth of precious stones would be found in Hogue’s room, with Princeton getting a good laugh at Harvard’s expense. And it turned out Hogue grew up not in Utah or Colorado, but in Kansas. Its official state motto, Ad astra per aspera (through adversity, toward the stars), was often invoked by the Latin-fluent felon. To struggle is fine, and to lie is very much a part of the social contract’s elastic. “You can fib a little bit,” as the Talking Heads song goes, “but not too much.”

The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures of the Ivy League Imposter James Hogue by David Samuels
New Press
ISBN: 159558188X
192 Pages