FEBRUARY 10, 2012
IN THE SWIRL OF COMMENTARY surrounding Pulphead, the essay collection by John Jeremiah Sullivan, nothing seems to come up more than the so-called New Journalism. Upon its release, for instance, the volume’s publisher claimed that Sullivan channels “the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion,” while Lev Grossman of Time magazine writes that he is “the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe.” And J.C. Gabel, in Bookforum, says Pulphead “calls to mind some of the best New Journalism of the ’60s and ’70s.” Undoubtedly, Sullivan — a 37-year-old writer-at-large for GQ, a contributing editor for Harper’s, and the southern editor of The Paris Review — is an admirer of the ur-texts by the preeminent essayists of the movement. Like them in their best work, Sullivan proves to be a masterful handler of cultural confusion, approaching matters from oblique angles while eschewing boilerplate themes and orderly conclusions.
In his introduction to the 1973 anthology The New Journalism, Wolfe argues that the writers collected therein drew heavily from “the techniques of realism — particularly of the sort found in Fielding, Smollett, Balzac, Dickens and Gogol.” Sullivan’s work, however, isn’t a mere pastiche of his forebears. He’s not engrossed with social status like Wolfe, nor does he succumb to the cynical grandiloquence one often finds in Thompson’s journalistic transgressions. And unlike Didion, whose early nonfiction routinely stripped away façades to expose fraud, Sullivan works in the opposite direction, humanely revealing the complexity within subjects typically seen as neglected, overwrought, or insipid. Wolfe and his contemporaries, rather than illustrating, say, class hardships, chiefly addressed in their reportage newfangled phenomena and fringe subcultures with a mix of literary flair and a detached, ethnological eye.
What’s so fresh about Sullivan’s essayistic temperament, on the other hand, is that he runs his nonfictions through a Southern Gothic filter, emphasizing particularly the tragicomic side of the genre and its often overlooked compassion. Throughout the collection, his subjects — dehumanized outliers and the ineffable cultural artifact — are those with histories that adhere like kudzu weed. If there’s an ethos that frames the work, it’s at once an American sense of the grotesque and William Faulkner’s well-known adage from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Take “Upon This Rock,” Pulphead‘s opening essay in which Sullivan covers “Creation,” a Christian rock-festival in rural Pennsylvania. Sullivan lunges into evangelical culture with shrewd and humorous discernment, but with an empathic mindset and no superfluous bathos. Wolfe and Didion, one imagines, would likely observe Creation with a condescending gaze from afar; and if Thompson had written about an analogous event, it undoubtedly would have been apocalyptically-tinged (or at the very least psychedelically-shaded). In a sense, the closest New Journalistic ancestor of this essay is Terry Southern’s 1963 Esquire piece “Twirling at Ole Miss.” Sullivan, too, has a propensity for the comically absurd, or as Southern puts it in “Twirling,” “one of those incredible bits of irony which sometimes do occur in life, but are never suitable for fiction.” “Upon This Rock” is infused with such “incredible bits” — for instance, when Sullivan recounts this scene while driving in to Creation:
Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn. I understand where you might be coming from in doubting that. Nevertheless it is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram’s horn, quite capably, twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.
As the essay unfolds, Sullivan becomes fully immersed in the “born-again” crowd, and the remembered past takes him in the opposite direction, spawning a recollection of his own “high school ‘Jesus phase.'” The admission cuts sharply against the characteristically derisive voice of the New Journalism, and of most contemporary magazine writing. And it severs even deeper when the memory — compounded by a festival goer who dies at his feet from a heart attack — becomes almost too much for him to bear: “I went back to the trailer and had, as the ladies say where I’m from, a colossal go-to-pieces.”
The Southern past is also at the heart of Sullivan’s first book, Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportwriter’s Son (2004). There, he offers up a multi-pronged narrative, including an off-kilter history of horse racing, a jaunt through Kentucky culture, and a moving memoir of his relationship with his late father, a sportswriter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. As Sullivan records in the work — which was the outgrowth of a 2002 essay he wrote for Harper’s — he was born in Kentucky and quickly uprooted to the Midwest. But a devotion to the South remained:
I had a yearning, very early on, to belong to Lexington, and when my geographical history became too convoluted to afford an obvious “hometown” (born in Louisville; childhood in southern Indiana; high school in Ohio; college in Tennessee), it was a great relief in the end, just to be able to tell people, “I’m from Kentucky,” a state in which I have never actually lived.
This identification with the South — its debased charms and moving contradictions — spills over into Pulphead. In the essay “Mr. Lytle,” Sullivan writes, “I was under the tragic spell of the South, which either you’ve felt or you haven’t. In my case it was acute because, having grown up in Indiana with a Yankee father, a child exile from Kentucky roots of which I was overly proud, I’d long been aware of a faint nowhereness to my life.” In this story, Sullivan resurrects the Tennessee author Andrew Nelson Lytle, then the last surviving member of the collective of writers and artists known as the Southern Agrarians. “Bear in mind that by the mid-nineties, when I knew him,” Sullivan says about once serving as Lytle’s apprentice-cum-caretaker, “the so-called Southern Renascence in letters had mostly dwindled to a tired professional regionalism.”
One of the essay’s more extraordinary effects is the way it allows readers to lose track of whether they’re reading memoir or a short story — and whether that matters. Sullivan crafts a picture of Lytle’s complexities and, despite his faults, the lessons hidden within them:
The manner in which I related to him was essentially anthropological. Taking offense, for instance, to his more or less daily outbursts of racism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism, class snobbery, and what I can only call medieval nostalgia, seemed as absurd as debating these things with a caveman. Shut up and ask him what the cave art means.
Sullivan’s obsession with questioning the South’s enigmatic artifacts persists in “Unnamed Caves,” an essay about Native American prehistoric cave art that’s mostly being rediscovered in middle Tennessee. It’s a fascination that serves his sensibility well, as he’s a first-rate observer of things that can’t immediately, if ever, be deciphered. While dwelling in an undisclosed cavern with an archaeologist named Jan Simek, a “thick-chest guy in his fifties — bushy dark hair mixed with iron gray, sportsman’s shades,” Sullivan doesn’t ascribe meaning to the “weird paddle-handed creatures with long wavy arms,” but rather illuminates the ancient wall portraits’ incongruities:
I began to feel that I was inside a hallucination, not that I was hallucinating myself-I was working very hard, in that cramped space, to write down Jan’s few cryptic remarks-but that I was experiencing someone else’s dream, which had been engineered for me, or rather not for me but for some other, very different people to progress through. It may have been shamanic.
Likewise, in “Unknown Bards,” a refreshing exegesis on the threadbare subject of the blues, Sullivan skillfully displays an awareness that he is writing at a time when the lines between high and mass art have broken down. While the result, Sullivan suggests, may be a redefinition of cultural forms, it can also lead to a misunderstanding of both. An expansive piece divided in two sections, it’s a brilliant mingling of criticism, first-person narrative and research-based reporting. Yet he shines best as an enthusiast for the all-but-forgotten blues songs of Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas:
Not many ciphers have left as large and beguiling a presence as Geeshie Wiley’s. Three of the six songs Wiley and Elvie Thomas recorded are among the greatest country-blues performances ever etched into shellac, and one of them, “Last Kind Words Blues,” is an essential work of American art, sans qualifiers, a blues that isn’t blues, that is something other, but is at the same time a perfect blues, a pinnacle.
In the latter part of “Unknown Bards,” Sullivan picks apart Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues, two blues histories that “seek to deconstruct the legend of the ‘Delta bluesman.” He contends that the fault of both books — indeed, of most blues scholarship — is the failure to recognize that some of the earliest blues performers saw their work as art before tastemakers deemed it so:
We have again to go against our training and suspend anthropological thinking here; it doesn’t serve at these strata. The noble ambition not to be the kind of people who unwittingly fetishize and exoticize black or poor white folk poverty has allowed us to remain the type who don’t stop to ask if the serious treatment of certain folk forms as essentially high- or higher-art forms might have originated with the folk themselves.
When it comes to the cultural history of the region, Sullivan’s thinking on the subject falls in line with the late historian David M. Potter’s suggestion: “The South remains as challenging as it is baffling, which is about as challenging as a subject can be.”
The grotesque is, again, at the center of Sullivan’s thinking about music and pop culture as he sympathetically explores degraded and tragically eccentric subjects. “Michael,” a postmortem analysis of Michael Jackson, remarkably manages to say something new about the late pop singer. The essay starts with Sullivan’s discovery that Jackson’s decision to name his two sons Prince wasn’t as outlandish as it seemed. According to Sullivan, their namesake is Jackson’s great-great grandfather, “an Alabama cotton-plantation slave,” named Prince Screws. “Not to imply that it was above mockery,” he writes, “but of all the things that make Michael unknowable, thinking we knew him is maybe the most deceptive.”
Sullivan refurbishes Jackson’s humanity all the more by reminding readers of his genius. In recounting a sublime performance of “Billie Jean” during a Motown television special, Sullivan contrasts the louder reports of Jackson’s alleged creepiness with how charming and multifaceted he came across in interviews with Ebony and Jet magazines:
During whole stretches of years when the big media were reporting endlessly on his bizarreness and reclusiveness, he was every so often granting these intimate and illuminating sit-downs to those magazines, never forgetting to remind them that he trusted them, would speak only to them. The articles make me realize that about the only Michael Jackson I’ve ever known, personality-wise, is a Michael Jackson who’s defending himself against white people who are passive-aggressively accusing him of child molestation.
Though the popular convention before Jackson’s death was to deem him a “strange, self-mutilated creature” — due in large part to his plastic surgery fixation — Sullivan suggests that perhaps Jackson was perfectly content with his metamorphosis: “We moan that Michael changed his face out of self-loathing. He may have loved what he became.”
In another profile, this time of Axl Rose, Sullivan mixes his knack for honing in on the grotesque with what Gay Talese calls “the fine art of hanging out.” And like Talese in his landmark 1966 Esquire story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” — in which he captures the quintessence of the singer by not getting a sit-down with Sinatra — Sullivan constructs a write-around that’s so successful in its insights that it’s hard to envision an interview with the reclusive Guns N’ Roses front man that would have been more revealing. When the essay originally ran in GQ in 2006, Rose had not released a record in more than a decade, and was incessantly tinkering with the album Chinese Democracy. He was viewed at the time, according to Sullivan, as “an almost Howard Hughes-like character — only ordering in.”
While Sullivan attends Rose’s “third of the four comeback shows in New York,” he saliently captures the peculiar changes in the singer’s appearance since his Appetite for Destruction prime:
To me he looks like he’s wearing an Axl Rose mask. He looks like a man I saw eating by himself at a truck stop in Monteagle, Tennessee, at two o’clock in the morning about twelve years ago. He looks increasingly like the albino reggae legend Yellowman. His mane evokes a gathering of strawberry red intricately braided hempen fibers, the sharply twisted ends of which have been punched, individually, a half inch into his scalp. His chest hair is the color of a new penny. With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster inPredator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet.
Yet these “grotesqueries de trop” are tenderized by Sullivan’s account of the way Rose’s hometown, Lafayette, Indiana, at once shaped and probably continues to haunt Rose, and, moreover, how unusual it was that he even escaped the “most nowhere part of America.” Sullivan advises: “That’s where he’s from. Bear that in mind.”
In “Mr. Lytle,” Sullivan describes how his college roommate considered Lytle a “grotesquerie and a fascist” — largely for once uttering: “Life is melodrama. Only art is real.” Sullivan, conversely, says he was less disturbed by Lytle’s aphorism, which may partly explain Sullivan’s attraction to reality television. In “Getting Down to What is Really Real,” a reported essay about a few former cast members of MTV’s The Real World, reality programs are set up as a go-to medium for seeking out truths about the bawdy side of the human condition:
People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. It’s all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, a great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching.
What Sullivan tells us about contemporary life is that the thin line between spectator and participant has broken down:
There are simply too many of them — too many shows and too many people on the shows on the shows — for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.
This same imaginative interpretation, mirth, and affection is present when Sullivan writes about yet another elusive subject, the reggae legend Bunny Wailer, and also when he’s recalling his musician brother’s near death experience from being shocked by a microphone. (Reality television seeps into this story as well, with Sullivan noting that the accident was featured in an episode of the William Shatner-hosted program Rescue 911.) These traits also show up in a piece about Constantine Rafinesque, the peculiar nineteenth-century explorer and naturalist who left his motherland of France to explore America’s southeast. Rafinesque’s “beautiful human brain” was hindered by the limitations of his age — as certainly as ours are presently. Sullivan writes: “We do well to draw a lesson of humility from this. It’s the human condition to be confused. No other animal ever had an erroneous thought about nature. Who knows what our version of the six-thousand-year-old earth is.” And they’re present in “American Grotesque,” a story in which the author bounces from a Tea Party rally in Washington D.C. to an investigation of the death of a census worker to his own lobbyist cousin. This is the real strength of all 14 works in the collection: the sense that where they conclude, and all the zigzagging asides along the way, weren’t predetermined.
Elizabeth Hardwick, another Kentucky native and a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, once said of the essay: “I have a great affection for the form and have given to it everything and more than would be required in fiction, that is, everything I possibly could. I have always written essays as if they were examples of imaginative writing, as I believe them to be.” In Sullivan’s work we find this same care for the form and an understanding of its possibilities; Pulphead is a cohesive, masterful collage of subjects that can’t help but beg re-examination. Likewise, Sullivan’s is an original voice we’ll want to hear again.