David Samuels belongs to an increasingly rare species: journalists who can parachute into an unfamiliar corner of America, establish their bearings quickly and extract a compelling narrative at once universally recognizable and resonant with idiosyncratic particularities. Not only is the species endangered; if you follow media trend pieces, so is its habitat. The number of magazines willing to support writers, especially younger writers, who embark on odysseys in which days' or weeks' worth of experiences are chiseled into 10,000 to 15,000 illuminating words seems to decrease monthly. Samuels has benefited from writing for the best of those that remain — Harper's, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine — and his new essay collection, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, is a patchwork composition that yields surprising insights into American existence. It is a testament to the particular pleasures and value of long-format narrative journalism.
Samuels notes that "the free-floating weirdness of American life will always escape any attempts to make us seem like a normal country rather than a furious human-wave assault on the farthest shores of reality." The first pieces in the book, a fair but unsparing examination of Woodstock '99, an account of the antiglobalization activist community in Eugene, Ore., and a portrait of the radical antiabortion activist Jim Kopp, depict people seemingly untethered to social convention, drifting toward violence on clouds of disaffection. This may be because "coherent narratives, the stories that tell us who we are and where we are going, are getting harder and harder to find," as Samuels observes in a personal essay. What is left behind are "a few hundred million loopy, chattering, disconnected I's."
Other pieces step back from individuals to offer more sweeping panoramas. The best in the collection, "Bringing Down the House," begins as a portrait of the Loizeaux family, proprietors of the country's largest demolition company. It quickly takes a left turn when Doug Loizeaux invites Samuels to "help out" with the demolition of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, which is being razed to make way for the behemoth Venetian Las Vegas. From observing the meticulous preparations necessary to ensure the safe demolition of the tower, Samuels reaps broader wisdom: "The historic passage from the faded glories of the Sands to Sheldon Adelson's Venetian is a powerful testimony to the American belief in starting over; in lucky numbers, charms, and stars; and in our expansive capacity for self delusion; and to the more general national transition from the smoke-filled back rooms where Las Vegas was born to the hazy methadone smog of movies and television."
Not every essay in the collection is as masterful. Shorter, admiring profiles (of rapper Prince Paul and left-handed pitcher Bill "The Spaceman" Lee) and personal ruminations are not as strong, and describing music and visual art doesn't come to Samuels as naturally as does setting a scene or capturing a personality. Several of the pieces are amended to include additional material. In "Buried Suns," a strong essay about below-ground nuclear testing in Nevada, Samuels muses on his encounter with Michael Jackson and his experience at the Guggenheim's branch in Las Vegas. That it's a footnote not included in the original makes one appreciate editors who rein in their writers' flights of fancy.
But Samuels's rolling prose and his eye for telling detail more than make up for the book's occasional misfires. His synoptic overview of Super Bowl XL in Detroit is ostensibly a portrait of the pre-game entertainer, Stevie Wonder, "a playful, gigantic black baby who has absorbed all terrestrial sounds and language in a single gulp." Samuels hops from the NFL's all-glass command center high above the field to the press briefing room at a nearby hotel to the tunnel through which Wonder and a 6,000-square-foot musical stage, along with the players and 2,000 teenagers, emerge onto the field. Something much larger emerges too. He meets Smokey Robinson's guitarist and songwriter, Marvin Tarplin, notes "Black Monday" and the demolition of the Motown Records headquarters, and captures the "free-floating weirdness" of a multimillion-dollar corporate juggernaut landing in this city and taking off again so quickly.
The New Press has simultaneously published The Runner ($22.95, 192 pp.), Samuels' account, based on his New Yorker essay, of a thief named James Hogue who reimagines himself as an autodidact ranch hand, gains admission to Princeton and is subsequently exposed as the Ivy League's most infamous impostor.
Brian Sholis is editor of Artforum.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.