Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 15
 
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
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April Fool’s at Labyrinth: The Tale of an Impostor

Ellen Gilbert

“He wrote much too well — it just wasn’t fair,” said Princeton historian Sean Wilentz of David Samuels as he introduced his former graduate student who was making an April 1 appearance at Labyrinth Books. Mr. Wilentz described him as “a teller of stories,” a description that also fits the subject of Mr. Samuels’s new book, The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures of the Ivy League Impostor James Hogue.

Described by Kirkus Reviews as “A dizzying, exhilarating tale of deception, duplicity and the search for personal identity,” Runner is the story of “Jame Hogue” the homeless drifter who started a new life by making up a fake identity and gaining admission to Princeton University. It is based on Mr. Samuel’s “New Yorker” article of several years ago.

Mr. Samuels is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine and a contributor to The Atlantic (his article, “Shooting Britany” is in this month’s issue), and The New Yorker. He said he was happy to have an opportunity to enlarge on his well-received New Yorker story about “this sociopath.” The news of Hogue’s recent arrest in Telluride, Colorado, for stealing some $100,000 worth of his neighbors’ possessions, presented Mr. Samuels with the chance to revisit the questions he had about “who this man was, and what his story meant.”Mr. Hogue’s latest caper, for which he is currently serving a 10- to 12- year jail sentence, suggested to Mr. Samuels that he was “unable to make a life except by fictionalizing himself.”

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Hogue made the news when it was revealed that the star runner and grade A student had entered Princeton under an assumed name. Now he had created a new persona in the well-heeled ski resort as a multi-lingual expert skier who, some believed, had been trained as a master carpenter in Italy. And oh yes, he was, by some accounts, a cook, and a wine enthusiast. “No two stories about him were the same,” said Mr. Samuels. “The most basic facts were unclear, and none were true. He left everyone in town scratching their heads.”

Bewildering people may have been very much the point for Mr. Hogue. By not making anything about himself too explicit, Mr. Samuels observed, “he suggests things and lets other people fill in the gaps. People like Mr. Hogue are like blank canvases and we fill in our hopes and fears.”

When a member of the audience at the Labyrinth reading asked how it was possible for university professors to look across at a 30-something “student” and not realize something was amiss, Mr. Samuels suggested that everyone at Princeton knew the grandiose story Mr. Hogue had given on his application (he claimed to be a largely self-educated, Mexican-American ranch hand in the Mojave Desert), and “no one wanted to dispel the myth or say that Princeton was a fraud.”

It isn’t only individuals who are complicit in the deceptions of people like James Hogue, a.k.a. Alexii Santana, said Mr. Samuels, who was quite pointed in his negative portrayal of Princeton University as representative of the “meritocracy” to which Hogue aspired. The author said that the whole episode showed “how little the Ivy League application process has to do with one’s ability to perform.” Describing getting into Princeton as winning “a beauty contest,” Mr. Samuels commented on “the absurdity of a system that never would have accepted Hogue for what he was.”

Sociopath? Tragic figure? Revealer of hypocritical institutions? Gatsbyesque con man? Mr. Samuels was candid in describing his own uncertainties about his subject, but recounted Mr. Hogue’s unhappy experience as a freshman runner at the University of Wyoming as a possible impetus for his Princeton scam. Hoping to create a first-class team, the Wyoming coach had recruited a number of Kenyan runners, already in their twenties and, not insignificantly, trained to disclose as little about themselves as possible, to run on the team with the new students, whom they easily outdistanced. Mr. Hogue “broke down” under the strain of competing with them, and dropped out of school. His re-emergence as an elusive star runner at Princeton, Mr. Samuels suggested, may have been in response to this episode.

Even before that experience, however, Mr. Hogue seemed to have called the shots. Mr. Samuels described how, as a champion high school runner in Kansas, the strong-winded, skinny kid won a race in spite of sprinting much earlier than his coach had advised. “He outsmarted everyone,” including his coach, said Mr. Samuels. “He ran his own race and won.”

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