Catch him if you can

 

The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical
Adventures of the Ivy League Impostor James Hogue

David Samuels
192 pages,
hardcover: $23.
New Press, 2008.

 

Palo Alto High School believed James Hogue was a recently orphaned 16-year-old from a Nevada commune. Princeton University thought he was a self-educated ranch hand who lived alone in the Mojave Desert.

He was neither, as David Samuels explains in his new book, The Runner. James Hogue was actually a remarkable con man, whose elaborate deceptions stretched from the East Coast to the Mountain West. Hogue enrolled in Palo Alto High when he was 26 and was accepted to Princeton six years later. But from the late 1980s until he was arrested in Tucson in 2006, he spent most of his time in wealthy New West tourist towns like St. George, Utah, and Telluride, Colo., stealing everything from custom racing bicycles to the hair-loss drug Rogaine.

Telluride, where Hogue constructed the character he later used to apply to Princeton, is a "good place to come if you want to shed your skin and become someone new," Samuels writes. No one knew Hogue well enough to question his graduate degree in biomedical engineering or his experience in Olympic running trials. Nor did they realize he was assembling a collection of personal possessions purloined from their homes.

The New West helped Hogue get by, but the Old West helped him move up. Princeton swooned for "Alexi Ingris-Santana," the youthful Hispanic cattle herder who read everything from Shakespeare to 1960s black militant H. Rap Brown and spent his nights running under the stars along Purgatory Canyon. "There was something in his story for everyone in the Princeton admissions office," Samuels writes, "from the most impassioned supporter of racial diversity to the most dewy-eyed fan of Thomas Kinkade paintings and John Ford movies."

Rather than judge Hogue, Samuels seeks out the distinctly American elements in his strange story. Hogue might be simply an "advanced liar," but his self-deception and determination to reinvent an unremarkable background are part of the American Dream as found in The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn -- even in the lies Ben Franklin told in his autobiography. 

Hogue's brilliance lay in finding a setting for his reinvention that is so rich (figuratively and literally) and yet so misunderstood. Any reader who has moved out West hoping to build a new life might be moved to ask hard questions about what "the West" really is.

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