“Do you know I and I?” –Bunny Wailer
A good essayist has a knack for honesty, but John Jeremiah Sullivan, American magazine writer, concentrates honesty in its purest form, mixed with a little entropy and dashed with brilliant confessional writing. To say that the good essayist is daring, would not be doing Sullivan’s brazenness justice. Sullivan does the essayist, and goes beyond in Pulphead, presenting us with the American Bizarre, from American pop culture to its strangest recesses.
Skimming the table of contents, Sullivan presents us with so much familiarity: Michael Jackson, blues music, Axl Rose, One Tree Hill, the modern Tea Party Movement, The Wailers, cave drawings, and the Real World (reality show). The content he pursues has so much currency in today’s conversations, enough to make you wonder if there is anything else original to expound. But Sullivan has an uncanny capacity to get weird. He pursues Axl’s childhood to see where the frontman came from, specifically a fight over bike tire skid marks and neighborhood interviews. He drinks and tails last season’s reality stars on a show, he admittedly is obsessed with, to scope out their progress and decline, to seek the truth about reality fame. Sullivan takes odd angles to illuminate our subjects in ways we have never seen them before, and in putting himself in these positions, we get a truth that, in cliché, is stranger than fiction.
Much of Sullivan’s most enticing work comes from his writing on music, a field he ostensibly knows much about. He presents the music that comes out of our car stereos as flat; it may be enjoyable, but to arrive to those three or four minutes, our artists have undergone extreme lengths to produce the sounds we take for granted. He gives both Axl and Michael depth, though he never spoke to either of them. He can even do genre. His piece on pre-war blues (before WWI), resuscitates the genre, presents it as very necessary part of our music timeline as recording instruments were coming around, and in doing so, paradoxically makes them timeless.
Pulphead opens with John Jeremiah Sullivan attending a Christian rock concert. Certainly, an estranged part of our culture, Sullivan’s writing does much not to focus on the music or the performers, but the people. He ends up befriending some men, weekend festival buddies, presenting them as we would take a first glance, and later rounding them out, fishing out anecdotes, carving out the demographics, and likening them to us. His writing is precise, not always benevolent, but not timid to etch the truth in portraying people in their entirety. On the same lines, Sullivan is in his top form when he cannot keep himself out of the piece. He falls onto the page in a beautiful disaster of flashbacks, revealing his ties to Christianity, the music, and the people. When he turns the lens inward and exacts his witty clarity upon himself, the result is honest and endearing. The essayist, too, is human, with obsessions of pop culture and zealous flaws, and can descend among us from the pedestal of narrator. Never is he too good for us or the people he is writing about.
It would be easy to compare him to other essay writers: the exacting Didion, the cynical Thompson, the sardonic Wallace, but Sullivan does much for the nonfiction essay in these 400 pages. In deep and delirious research and frequent self-honesty, John Jeremiah Sullivan exposes our popular and estranged culture, and most often, ourselves.
Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan, 2011, 369 pages
Pairs best with strong coffee, sunlight, and enough time to think