By the time I finished the first three essays in this book, words like “virtuoso” and “damn!” were coming to mind, and I started having to take breaks, where I’d walk around the house alternately bouncy with the joy of finding something so terrific to read, and thinking I’ll never, ever be this good, at anything.
Before I get lost in embarrassingly worshipful paeans about the pieces on Axl Rose (“with the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet”) and Michael Jackson (“a god moves through him; the god enters, the god leaves”) and the rest, let me stop and explain.
Pulphead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $16), by John Jeremiah Sullivan, is a collection of ruminations about American pop culture and politics interspersed with a look at cave paintings in Tennessee, a portrait of a misunderstood 19th-century naturalist, a tender and revealing ode to a former teacher, a story about the author’s brother—basically, things that you wouldn’t expect to find in a book called Pulphead.
So, not your usual hipster quotient. Of the blend of subjects Sullivan found interesting enough to dig into, he said in a Flavorwire interview: “They all are chronicles of some obsession or some subject I couldn’t get out of my head.”
Sullivan was born in Louisville, KY. His father was a sportswriter for the Louisville Courier-Journal. In his first book (Blood Horses), he recalls moving from Louisville to Columbus, Ohio, when he was twelve; in his new one, he says he grew up in southern Indiana, not too far from where Axl and Michael grew up. He attended the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, and now lives in Wilmington, N.C. with his family. Currently the (first) Southern editor for the Paris Review, Sullivan was previously an editor at the Oxford American magazine and has written for Harper’s and GQ.
Sullivan is a guy you can imagine wearing a velvet smoking jacket and a pair of Doc Martens. He might smoke a pipe. He combines a brainy, academic style with an earnest, restless enthusiasm and a lack of cynicism not often found in journalism today—there is almost no snarkiness in his writing. As I was reading Pulphead, a certain word came to mind. Paul Westerberg used it once to describe himself in an interview: Grandpaboy.
“I grew up sooner than I should have; I was an old man before my time, I think,” said the former Replacements lead singer. “Grandpaboy is the best explanation. I felt old and crotchety even when I was 19.”
Take out the crotchety part and it’s perfect: Sullivan’s still in his thirties, writing about reality TV and Bunny Wailer—but when he gets stuck on an old blues lyric he’s fact-checking (as editor at Oxford American), he turns to the OED, then to “this 1398 citation from John De Trevisa’s English translation of Bartholomeus Anglicus’s ca. 1240 Latin encyclopedia, De proprietatibus rerum,” where he finds out that the singer isn’t saying “flowers,” but “flour.” Which is, you know, exactly where I would have looked, sooner or later.
He has a kind of ageless, classless ability to identify with his subjects, from the 20-something Jesus freaks at a Christian rock festival to a naturalist who’s been dead since 1840. He can hang with Tea Partiers as easily as Miz from The Real World. What Sullivan says of the late, great David Foster Wallace (“Too Much Information,” GQ, May 2011) could also be said of Sullivan:
You’re in a room with a bunch of human beings. Each of them, like you, is broken and has healed in some funny way. Each of them, even the shallowest, has a novel inside. Each is loved by God or deserves to be. They all have something to do with you: When you let the membrane of your consciousness become porous, permit osmosis, you know it to be true, we have something to do with one another, are part of a narrative—but what? Wallace needed very badly to know.
Except that unlike Wallace, Sullivan’s personality doesn’t take over the story; for example, in Wallace’s cruise ship piece (the title essay of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) he not only goes to eat at the ship’s buffet but eats so much it makes him sick, and even though it’s of course about barfing on greed and excess, we can’t help but focus mainly on the guy who would do such a thing. When Sullivan goes to the Christian rock concert, he limits himself to some pan-fried frogs’ legs and tries to blend in.
In his piece about Jackson, simply titled “Michael,” he upends most of the agreed-upon public opinions about the King of Pop, including Jackson’s alleged pedophilia and the “self-mutilated creature” he became. “Of all the things that make Michael unknowable,” he writes, “thinking we knew him is perhaps the most deceptive.”
Describing Rose’s “Final Comeback,” Sullivan wishes he could dance like today’s new, improved Axl, who “from the beginning … has been the only indispensable white male rock dancer of his generation,” and who now, after the familiar fluid moves onstage in New York, “is gazing at the crowd with those strangely startled yet fearless eyes, as though we had just surprised him in his den, tearing into some carrion.”
In “Feet in Smoke,” a jaw-dropping essay about his brother getting electrocuted and the alternate reality he consequently inhabited for a time, Sullivan gives us the notes he took while his brother was hospitalized.
Evening of the 27th. Unexpectedly jumped up from his chair, a perplexed expression on his face, and ran to the wall. Rubbed palms along a small area of the wall, like a blind man. Turned. Asked, “Where’s the piñata?” Shuffled into hallway. Noticed a large nurse walking away from us down the hall. Muttered, “If she’s got our piñata, I’m gonna be pissed.”
Two essays not in the book that should be: the above-mentioned review of Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King, and a piece about Disney World, “You Blow My Mind. Hey Mickey!” I don’t want to confuse the issue by stressing either of these too much, but the first is really one of the most perceptive and intelligent essays about DFW on earth.
The second (you can read it in full here), about two guys determined to stay high during a family weekend at Disneyland, belongs here as another outstanding example of the way Sullivan becomes one with whatever he writes about.
He’s not the pothead of the story—it’s his old friend Trevor who has brought the special guide listing the “isolated footpaths that didn’t see much traffic [and] places where you could hide under a bridge by a little artificial river”—but Sullivan goes along with it, inhale for inhale—the same kind of “I’m in!” you find over and over in Pulphead.
As when, exploring the prehistoric cave paintings in one of the “Unnamed Caves” in Tennessee, he discovers that access was not a matter of walking upright into a nice cool alcove and shining a flashlight up on the walls. Nuh-uh. “The pictures are found in dark-zone sites—places where the Native American people who made the artwork did so at great personal risk, crawling meters or, in some cases, miles underground with cane torches…”
And so do Sullivan and his guide. “We squeezed through on our bellies,” he writes. “The squeeze got tight enough that, as I wriggled on my stomach, the ceiling was scraping my back…” His guide mentions that “they’d had to dig a couple of people out.”
Okay. Deep breaths.
Then, to reach the next cave he visits, all he has to do is position his body “horizontally between the walls of the cave—sideways—with his feet against one wall and his shoulders against the other, thrusting his muscles to fix himself there.” Then sidle his body to the right. “That’s how you’d pass over the sixty-foot drop in the floor.” (My italics.)
Going with the flow has always been one of the prime components of serendipity, synchronicity—especially when it comes to getting the story. Without it, the element of chance that leads mysteriously to meaning might never emerge.
There are a lot of those moments in Pulphead.
Being as game as Sullivan is has a bit of godliness about it. It could be seen as taking chances. But it comes across more as surrendering himself.
If he has to squeeze himself toothpaste style through rock walls to see an 800-year-old mud glyph, he wriggles. When the good old boys at the Creation rock concert cut the legs off live frogs and throw them into a skillet, he eats them. When his 92-year-old mentor, Andrew Lytle, in the grips of dementia, asks Sullivan to join him in bed to keep him warm, he snuggles.
Because I am the kind of grandma girl who only likes to read about this kind of risk-taking, it’s the perfect book for me.
John Jeremiah Sullivan will be appearing in Atlanta on Friday, Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. at one of my favorite literary events, the True Story Reading Series held at Kavarna, located at 707 East Lake Drive. Find out more here.
P.S. By now, you may have seen Werner Herzog’s recent documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which takes the viewer inside La Grotte Chauvet in the south of France to witness animal paintings more than thirty thousand years old. In this Q & A, Sullivan talks cave art with Herzog and archaeologist Jan Simek, who makes an appearance in Pulphead.
“A god moves through him; the god enters, the god leaves.”