Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pp., $16.00.
By the time I finished Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s wildly interesting book of essays, the book had set me a list of tasks. Listen to country blues, Bob Marley, and Jamaican speech. Watch Axl Rose dance “Patience” and Michael Jackson debut the moonwalk. Rent that cave-art documentary. I wanted to do these things to recapture the sentiment of old-fashioned wonder that Sullivan made me feel. I made a mental note, too, to go back to David Foster Wallace, because only a cultural essayist of his calibre can deliver the kind of pleasure Sullivan does.
I wasn’t won over immediately. The opening essay, an account of a trip to a Christian-rock music festival, begins with humor that’s a bit on the stiff side, as if the author were imperfectly channeling Bill Bryson. But as it proceeds, the narrative takes on an awkward and lovely radiance. The essayist choreographs a slow reveal of both himself and the men he meets that ends in a scene of transcendent beauty. Hallelujah—a writer who knows what he’s doing.
Next came essays about musicians, including Axl Rose and his home state of Indiana; an account of the author’s brother’s electrocution and resurrection; meditations on reality TV. Sullivan defends Michael Jackson’s plasticized face. He gazes upon American cave paintings left by the ancients. He describes the ersatz post-Rapture newsletter in his music-festival packet, as well as a more believable post-apocalyptic episode at a Mississippi gas station after Hurricane Katrina. Animal attacks on humans—is there a global pattern? And so on. Each essay is slow going because each is so fascinating that one puts down the book to go googling. (Wait till you’re done with the animal-attack essay before attempting internet follow-up, or you might spoil the ending, as I did.)
The author of Blood Horses and the Southern editor of The Paris Review, Sullivan writes beautifully. An old woman’s knuckles “were cubed with arthritis,” while her dying brother’s eyes “went from glossy to matte.” A ska song makes Sullivan feel like “a puck on an air-hockey table that’s been turned on.” The crowds at the Christian-rock festival are “a tad militia, but cheerful.” Perfect prose is everywhere. There is also comfy Foster Wallace- and Salinger-style rule-breaking that mostly works, though not always. “Supercrudely” felt unnecessary, as did “how-to sesh,” one of the rare occasions where the author sounded like a professor deploying last year’s slang. “Kids were hanging all over it like lemurs or something” didn’t require the simile. Such false notes are rare.
What’s Sullivan himself like? Though he and his personal particulars appear in every essay as a New Journalist’s should, something of his viewpoint remains elusive. Does he respect the good-old-boy born-again Christians he meets, given that he relays their life tragedies with such coolness? How about the grand old man of Southern letters to whom he serves as houseboy and apprentice? The eventual answer is yes on both counts, though in honest, complex, non-“love-your-neighbor” ways.
The deadpan was especially strong in “American Grotesque,” in which Sullivan joins a Glenn Beck “9/12” march in D.C. and reports it all in the plural first person. “Our march” is “an act of mass irony. Conservatives do not march. We shake our heads and hold signs while lefties march.” It’s disorienting—is this immersion journalism or a personal essay against a public backdrop? Then comes a private meeting with his cousin, a rich lobbyist: “It became possible to see my lovable wide-smiled cousin, whose tooth I had once helped pull, as the next logical evolutionary phase, a kind of probe put forward by our provincial-family genome into the D.C. atmosphere.” Evolutionary, eh? Soon the pronouns switch. “These people reminded you of ancient Russians who came out with pro-Soviet signs every winter.” Dizzying.
As mentioned earlier, Sullivan seems most in his element when conveying radical wonder. While recovering from a coma, his brother utters odd and endearing non sequiturs, and Sullivan revises his own Hobbesian assumptions about the innate darkness of the human mind: “Here was a consciousness reduced to its matter, to a ball of crackling synapses . . . and it was a good place to be, you might even say a poetic place.” He contemplates the juxtaposition of a set of four-thousand-year-old footprints in a Native American cave with a set only a thousand years old: “There is, of course, nothing new about the New World. The Indians had their own prehistory.” On the personal philosophy of an early 19th-century naturalist named Rafinesque: “Nature became conscious in us, perhaps in order to observe itself. It may be holding us out and turning us around like a crab does its eyeball . . . The idea is enough to render the Judeo-Christian cosmos sort of quaint.” Oh, and in this day and age, it takes guts to explain as a mainstream journalist writing for a secular magazine why you love Jesus Christ. Sullivan pulls that off too.
Perhaps such fine balance is a Southern thing. Raised in Indiana, Sullivan describes having been long “aware of a faint nowhereness to my life.” He feels this as a physical ache that is relieved when he attends the University of the South. “Finally I was somewhere, there. The South . . . I loved it as only one who will always be outside it can.” Place, that which gives one the feeling of being somewhere real and unique, is a theme to which Sullivan repeatedly and fruitfully returns. In a world of highway exits and housing developments and global corporate signage, writing that meditates upon a sense of place is precious. (Another item for the to-do list: re-read John Brinckerhoff Jackson.)
Since our entwinement with media and the Web, that nowhereness many of us feel is accompanied by a blurring of reality, so we need intelligent writing about reality and its distortion as well, too. An essay on the real-world aftermath of former stars of MTV’s “The Real World” examines how reality TV has “appropriated reality” after having “gone kudzu on the televised landscape.” That piece is nicely complimented by another that describes what it is like for Sullivan and his family to live in a house that is regularly used in a TV drama series. (There are lots of hotel stays, furnishings shared with the show’s fictional heroine, and crew-installed hallway wallpaper that stops where the camera’s eye does.) The house is in North Carolina, Sullivan’s adopted South. And when his baby daughter grows old enough to wonder why they kept moving in and out of their own house, he ends his contract with the show. “It was sort of a caveman thing,” he confesses. Home as a real place: an old-fashioned sentiment, to be sure.
Jenny Blair is a writer and MD in Austin, Texas. She co-edits the literary magazine Brink and is a two-time winner of the National Headliner Award.
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