The Dissection: A Novel (forthcoming from SFWP)
One night, to no one's surprise, celebrity chef August Sweeney, Food Network icon, drops dead in his restaurant. The next morning, Dr. Maya Zhu, a guarded, intense autopsist, is summoned to investigate why, under conditions Sweeney himself dictated. As she digs deeper into his immense body, everything that can go wrong, does, for death itself fails to stop August from raising hell.
On his path to gastronomic stardom, August saturated himself with almost anything he could: wine, cocaine, sex, butter, and salt. In her ruthless drive to excel as a doctor, Maya has walled herself off from almost everything. As she dissects August, teasing out the story written in his body, she begins to understand that she is doing an autopsy on her counterpoint: an equally ruthless artist who has walled himself off from nothing. As the novel progresses, their narratives converge, and Maya's life will never be the same.
Already longlisted for the Dzanc Prize in Fiction, The Dissection is a true book of the body. It combines the morbid humor of Raven Leilani's Luster with the anatomical precision of Ian McEwan's Saturday. To write it, Samuel spent years researching clinical pathology and fine dining alike, spending weeks observing autopsies and even working as a stagiaire in a Michelin-starred kitchen. It will be released by SFWP in early 2025.
Reporter for The Washington Post Magazine
"The Beautiful Art of Hassling Politicians in Animal Costumes" (Cover story, March 1, 2020)
That is why the people in mascot costumes matter. They aren’t just there to harry candidates. They are there to signal that, as seriously as our politicians take themselves — especially at a moment when the very future of democracy appears to be in peril — those same politicians are also, at some level, deeply silly. To forget that would be a grave error — because the alternative is seeing them as saviors.
"On Capitol Hill, one of the last few remaining nonpartisan spaces is a barbershop."
In the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building — recently gripped with impeachment fever — there is a rare space of peace and comity: the House barbershop. Step inside, and the shop’s wood paneling and sturdy leather chairs whisk you back to an era when a gentleman’s barber was as near to him as his priest, and if you asked for a man-bun you might be handed, skeptically, a baked good.
"Was Truman or Ike the first president to ride in a helicopter? A lesson in the limits of journalism."
If history, as the scholar Lucien Febvre said, is the daughter of time, journalism is the harried hospital administrator who shows up to let the new mother know it's been 48 hours and someone else needs the room.
"Mueller’s report is done. Is there still a point in having a prayer candle with his image on it?"
Images of saints invariably portray them as calm and beatific. Consider the depictions of Saint Sebastian looking fondly skyward as his body is riddled with arrows. And in this sense, the seemingly imperturbable Mueller made for an ideal religious icon. His sphinxlike cool made him the perfect vessel for his fans’ anxieties about the state of the country and, arguably, the perfect nemesis to President Trump.
"An ornament honoring Eisenhower is sponsored by Lockheed. Would he have approved?" (April 2019)
Eisenhower...famously used his 1961 farewell address to warn Americans of the growing power of the “military-industrial complex.” Because of that speech, it struck some observers as ironic that the White House Historical Association would honor Ike with an ornament sponsored by Lockheed, the world’s biggest defense contractor.
"D.C. United’s newest star Wayne Rooney toured Trump’s White House. How did fans react?" (March 2019)
Now, any public figure who receives a White House invitation has to square being honored by the president with being honored by this president. That tension is even more acute for someone playing for a team in Washington, D.C., whose majority-Democratic residents are basically political seismographs, sensitive to even the smallest tremors coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Essayist for The Rumpus
Column: "Dispatches from the Swamp" (starting June 2017)
Here in the District, where even the strip clubs play CNN these days, knowledge is the only power we have. They call us a swamp, but what we are is a hive of very prickly nerds. I’ve only been here for five years, but what I’ve learned is that we’re all a bunch of Tyrion Lannisters: we drink and we know things.
"Take the Words Judeo-Christian Out of Your Damn Mouth" (March 2018)
Whether you mean it or not, to say “Judeo-Christian” is to conscript Jews into a vision of a Godly, purified America, and that has never, ever, ever worked out well for us. It’s co-opting, it’s colonizing, and it’s condescending. It has comprehensively infected our national political discourse, but so did syphilis, once upon a time, and we figured out how to cure that.
Fiction for Barrelhouse
"Issue 17: The Hijacking of Eastern 7"
With a bang, the cockpit door flew open. There, suddenly, were Alice and the short fat Cuban, his knife pressed anew to her neck, and now—now they went bananas. The ovation would have made the rafters of the Metropolitan Opera buckle; indeed, the plane itself began to judder and rattle.
Essay for NYLON Magazine
"What is the Most Truthful On-Screen Depiction of Washington, DC?" (November 2017)
Outside of no-reservation restaurants and gay kickball, nothing is more fashionable in D.C. than hating on The West Wing. To invoke it with any kind of earnestness at all is to invite derision tinged with pity, and liberal use of the phrase “sweet summer child.” But what we of this city cannot admit, none of us, is that we hate on The West Wing because we so desperately want it to be real, and we will never get over the fact that it is not.
Fiction and Essay for Catapult
"The Ghost of King Solomon" (June 2016)
There are no old men in South Sudan, so I think this one must be a ghost. He appeared in the middle of the street, in the white light carved from the darkness by a passing Land Cruiser’s headlamp. His hair is white, like a ghost’s, but I do not know why a ghost would need a cane. I do not know where he came from. No one in Juba walks outside after the sun goes down.
"In Pursuit of Prodigy: The Last Samurai and Me" (August 2016)
on n’est pas serieux quand on a dix-sept ans,
Longform Journalism and Nonfiction
"The Slow, Troubling Death of the Autopsy" (Elemental)
The first thing to know about how a real autopsy lab works is that everything TV taught you is wrong. For one thing, there is no blue lighting anywhere — this is the dubious logic of CSI, in which autopsies are conducted in atmospherically dim rooms. In reality, the lighting is dazzlingly white and stark. The floors are brushed cement, the walls are white, and the tables made of stainless steel.
There are also no glowing screens, no projected holograms, no computers that can instantly spit out a list of every foreign substance in a person’s system. Instead, there are basic tools: scalpels, aging Dell computers, endless cotton towels, long-handled pruning shears that retail for $39.99 at Home Depot.
"My Mother's Second Act" (Romper)
Toni Morrison, Isak Dinesen, Elizabeth Strout, and George Eliot didn’t publish their first novels until they were 40 or older. Penelope Fitzgerald did it at 60; Laura Ingalls Wilder was even older when she wrote the first Little House on the Prairie book. These were women who knew something about the world. Recently, my mother finished a libretto for a brand-new opera composed by Stephanie Chou, a 35-year-old jazz musician. It’s about comfort women, the 200,000 Chinese and Korean women who were abducted into sexual slavery by the Japanese army in World War II. After he read it, my father says he looked at her and said, “If we hadn’t had children, you could have written a hundred of these.”
No, she told him. “There’s no way I could have written any of it if I hadn’t.”
"Reality Bites: The Story of Rocco DiSpirito" (Eater)
In 2003, there were two kinds of food television: the kind in which Julia Child or Emeril Lagasse stood behind a massive kitchen island and explained how to make chicken a la king, and the gastro-tourist kind, like Bourdain’s first show, A Cook’s Tour. There was no Top Chef, no Chopped, no Kitchen Nightmares; Iron Chef America wouldn’t premiere until 2004. The Restaurant was America’s first food-oriented reality show, and it’s striking now for everything that isn’t there.
"Super Sad True Chef Story" (Eater)
In the summer of 2017, as research for a novel, I went to France to train, or stage, for a short period of time in a Michelin-starred kitchen. The stage system’s genius, I found, was its simplicity. It forged chefs who could take the heat, and it broke those who couldn’t. To get through a stage (pronounced “stodge”), your desire to work in a kitchen had to be absolute because it was all you had. If you came out the other side, you were accepted.
Me? I broke after one week.
"McDreamy, McSteamy, and McConnell" (Longreads)
That hope — the hope that maybe some of it isn’t fictional — is what drives people to write stories about Congress. Authors who write humanizing stories about politicians “are hoping in some sense that they are that human,” says Anne Jamison, an assistant professor of English at the University of Utah. If you can imagine a world where all Mitch McConnell needs is the love of a good man, or one where Susan Collins has a backbone, then you can convince yourself that maybe, just maybe, it could be true.
"In the Dark All Katz Are Grey: Notes on Jewish Nostalgia" (Hazlitt)
With the benefit of hindsight we can see Dirty Dancing for what it is: a Jewish horror movie. In the summer of 1963, a nice family goes to a Jewish resort in the Catskills for a week of bonding and relaxation, only to have their Mount Holyoke-bound seventeen-year-old daughter repudiate them completely in favor of an uneducated blond Adonis in leather pants named Johnny fucking Castle, who has rhumba’d his way into her heart.
"Strega Nona Is Not a Communist" (Gawker)
Big Anthony emerges to rapturous adulation from the crowd. He is no longer Big Anthony, the goat-milker who doesn’t pay attention; he is the Italian Prometheus. He has not merely bent the arc of history, he has snapped it like an uncooked noodle.
Translation for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine
"Take Care, Love," by Jean-Claude Mourlevat (October/November 2018)
There was a sickening noise of splintered bone. The man, who had half stood up, fell to all fours under the impact. She kicked him in his bony and preposterous bare buttocks and hit him a second time, then a third, then again and again, always on the head, hurling curses at him, of which the gentlest was “you son of a bitch.”
Criticism for Times Literary Supplement
"With Their Eyes Turned." (Review of Eyes and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by William Gass)
It is a strange business to review a book that is manifestly indifferent to whether it will ever be read, much less reviewed. Yet Gass’s commitment to that indifference, whatever the cost, is precisely what makes him worthy of critical attention: he is perhaps the most virtuosic author of the last century; he may also be one of its greatest failures.
"Well Seasoned." (Review of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, by Ted Merwin)
In fact, one of the more pleasurable sections of the book contrasts the deli’s exaltation of exquisitely spiced food, glabrous with fat and mustard, with the prim Presbyterian propriety of the 1920s, which held that the road to hell, drink, and masturbation was paved with excessive seasoning.
"Cadres and Contours." (Review of Last Days in Shanghai, by Caleb Walker)
Last Days is a book about how much it takes for us to admit our own corruption, and our complicity. It’s the opposite of a bildungsroman; it’s what we might call a demolierungroman: a novel about a young man’s steady demolition.
“Gods in a Gallery.” (Review of Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe)
Ndibe writes as if his purpose is higher than the creation of healthy, living fiction; the matters of accurate language, tight structure, realistic characters, and local detail fall beneath his gaze.
Criticism for Brooklyn Rail
“Make Ready the Champagne Bottle.” Review of The Parrots (I Pappagalli), by Filippo Bologna (February 2014)
The Parrots may not be a Great Book. It is too unkempt, too messy, too rangy in its attentions, and too ham-fisted in its attempts at symbolism. But because it is all these things, because it is rude, it is sharp, it is vulgar, and it is, at times, as beautiful as the rosy blush on an old dipsomaniac’s cheeks, The Parrots is a terrific book.
Travel Writing for Roads and Kingdoms
The Only Decent Dessert in China (August 2015)
The crisp warm shell was fragile as a swallow’s nest. The difference between the flimsy yellow versions flogged in mainland China and this, the real deal, was the difference between Hello Kitty and an actual cat purring and sleeping in your lap.
How Not To Watch Soccer In Kenya (July 2015)
If coffee is a stimulant, Ethiopian coffee is smoking crack out of a lightbulb fragment. It tastes like the stuff Noah used to seal up the ark.