Pulphead Essays Summary Of Qualifications
I began this book reluctantly – I was deep into Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, which is pretty much the exact opposite – but by the end I wanted to hand out copies to all those poor folks I see squirming their way through the squalid prose-dungeons of Fifty Shades. I wanted to launch a new British magazine especially for long-form journalism. I wanted to go out and round up a good few of the nation's so-called columnists and shame them into admitting that the weekly crap-farragoes that they are pretending to call careers will no longer do. I wanted to say "that's what I'm talking about".
What am I talking about? Pulphead is a collection of essays that appeared in various American magazines written by a journalist in his late 30s, whom almost nobody in Britain will know. But my guess is that those of you who like real writing (I know you're out there) will soon come to love John Jeremiah Sullivan – especially if he turns his talent to writing fiction, which, on the evidence of this collection, would not be too great a stretch. My stateside siblings tell me that he's already got a foot on the same escalator that took Foster Wallace, Franzen and the gang per aspera ad astra. Meanwhile, various people are calling him the next Tom Wolfe this and the new Hunter S Thompson that. Who knows? I'd say hold off a spell – he's simply not produced enough assessable work. But I certainly found this collection wonderfully engaging, lucid, intelligent, entertaining, interesting and amusing.
The first pleasure of Pulphead is the subject matter. There is the best essay you will ever read on Michael Jackson and the only essay you'll ever read on Axl Rose. There's the oddly emotional and disconcerting account of attending a Christian rock music festival entitled Upon This Rock. There's the story of Sullivan's time living with the mad old American writer Andrew Nelson Lytle, who late one night finally got around to touching the young John Jeremiah's genitals. There's a supreme piece of writing – part analysis, part paean – about reality television. There's an account of going to meet Bunny Wailer, the only surviving member of Bob Marley's original band, in Jamaica. There's a disarmingly convivial trip to Disney World. There's a wonderfully illuminating investigation into the lyrics of a pre-second world war blues song – and in particular what the word "kind" once meant – in the sense of "a little more than kin and less than kind". There's a moving and hyper-real account of Sullivan's brother's near death by accidental electrocution, a post-Katrina excursion to the Gulf Coast, some piquant pages on the Tea Party and a piece about the coming war between homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom.
The second pleasure is the sophistication. So often the clarity of a writer's voice comes at the expense of a subtlety in tone. Not here. The two best pieces of the ensemble – Getting Down to What is Really Real and Upon This Rock – are written with such a well-judged balance of close-up love and objective report that they subverted my prejudices entirely and left me admiring Sullivan's way of admiring. I went into these chapters belligerently not giving a toss about reality TV and believing the Christian rock music scene to be the single most colossally redundant human phenomenon to date; I came out a changed reader. Sullivan had guided me through these alien worlds in a way that revealed to me their interesting geometries and their raisons d'être. What more can the writer do?
Not only do the essays engage, they are also richly informative. I finally understood the title of one of my very favourite songs – I and I by Bob Dylan – as a Rastafarian expression. And I found myself jotting down notes in order to seek out the songs Sullivan cited – one of which, Let Him Go, I am listening to right now. Again: what more can you ask?
But the greatest pleasure of all was the writing itself. There are essayists who rely on their subject to create interest and there are essayists who rely on their style. Sullivan deploys both. In The Last Wailer, he describes the notorious Jamaican drug lord and gangster Christopher Coke (oh, nominative determinism) as a "short, thick, somewhat pan-faced man, who keeps a low profile and always seems to be smiling at an inward joke". In the reality TV essay, he renders Richard Branson as "that weird and whispery mogul-faun, Sir Richard". Elsewhere, "knuckles are cubed with arthritis" and the music in a nightclub is "like a rabbit's heartbeat in the core of your brain". Everywhere, Sullivan's love of language, his skill and inventiveness, reminded me afresh of the delight of reading people who can actually write. And even when he didn't quite pull it off – the interior of a rented mobile home "smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun" – I found myself greatly enjoying the failure.
I had only one reservation. Hovering somewhere in the coulisse of these performances, there seems to be an anxiety about authenticity. This manifests itself as an emphasis on what "actually" happened here, what the reader might check up on there, a habit of breaking out into bald film dialogue-style quotes as if to prove such and such was "really" said. In one story (the weakest), Violence of the Lambs – about the animal-human war – Sullivan adds a coda: "Big parts of this piece I made up…" He seems angry about having to admit to fabrication "because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories" and then writes a second postscript about new "facts" discovered. Sure, there are (adolescent) jokes in play here – about "fact-checking" journalism, about editors, about fabrication, about scientific horror stories – but there's also just straightforward bullshit at the expense of the reader. My take: expect a novel sometime.
Like well-made songs, his essays don’t just have strong verses and choruses but bridges, too, unexpected bits that make subtle harmonic connections. Most of the bridges in “Pulphead” are autobiographical. Some are moving, like his recounting, in the piece about attending a Christian rock festival, his own searching “Jesus phase” in high school.
Others are gently comic and make you want to sip gin with the author on a front porch somewhere. He gets high a few times in these essays and even buys weed in Jamaica as a gift for Bunny Wailer. It’s nerve-racking, you suspect, buying weed for a reggae legend, so of course Mr. Sullivan has to sample it, to make certain he “wouldn’t be insulting Bunny with it.”
He plays Neil Young’s song “Powderfinger” on guitar in an RV for some Christian rock fans. He was a volunteer fireman in college. He weeps a few times, in one case having, “as the ladies say where I am from, a colossal go-to-pieces.”
All of this is a way of saying that these essays have split ends and burnt edges. This fact makes you vaguely dread Mr. Sullivan’s inevitable hiring by The New Yorker as a staff writer. You don’t want to see any of the edges buffed away.
Mr. Sullivan is quotable without seeming to work very hard at it. In the first few pages alone of his book, there is this observation about a young woman: “Her face was as sweet as a birthday cake beneath spray-hardened bangs.” One page later, there’s this about an RV: “The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.” A few pages after that, the stars are out and “the sky looked like a tin punch lantern.”
As a music writer, he’s wonky without being geeky, if I can make that distinction. In the Axl Rose essay, for example, he gets a lot said that no one else has said quite as well. He calls Guns N’ Roses “the last great rock band that didn’t think there was something a bit embarrassing about being in a rock band.” He calls Mr. Rose “the only indispensible white male rock dancer of his generation.” He charts the five or six different voices that come pouring out of Mr. Rose when he’s singing, and notes that the one everyone waits for is “Devil Woman.”
This book’s title comes from a resignation letter that Norman Mailer wrote to Esquire magazine in 1960. “Good-by now, rum friends, and best wishes,” Mailer wrote. “You got a good mag (like the pulp-heads say).” There are moments in this book when Mr. Sullivan is a bit pulp-headed, glibly mythopoetical, straining for effect.
I winced when he wrote the following about shows like “The Real World,” of all things: “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” and so on. That’s the kind of lard you can scoop up and smear on anything in America — from pro wrestlers to TV preachers to characters on “Breaking Bad” — to try to give it a toaster-oven glow.
Those moments are rare. Most of the essays in “Pulphead” are haunted, in a far more persuasive way, by what Mr. Sullivan refers to with only slight self-mockery as “the tragic spell of the South.” The book has its grotesques, for sure. But they are genuine and appear here in a way that put me in mind of one of Flannery O’Connor’s indelible utterances.
“Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks,” O’Connor said,” I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”Continue reading the main story
By John Jeremiah Sullivan
369 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $16.