In Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan takes us on an exhilarating tour of our popular, unpopular, and at times completely forgotten culture. Simultaneously channeling the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion, Sullivan shows us—with a laidback, erudite Southern charm that’s all his own—how we really (no, really) live now.
In his native KenIn Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan takes us on an exhilarating tour of our popular, unpopular, and at times completely forgotten culture. Simultaneously channeling the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion, Sullivan shows us—with a laidback, erudite Southern charm that’s all his own—how we really (no, really) live now.
In his native Kentucky, Sullivan introduces us to Constantine Rafinesque, a nineteenth-century polymath genius who concocted a dense, fantastical prehistory of the New World. Back in modern times, Sullivan takes us to the Ozarks for a Christian rock festival; to Florida to meet the alumni and straggling refugees of MTV’s Real World, who’ve generated their own self-perpetuating economy of minor celebrity; and all across the South on the trail of the blues. He takes us to Indiana to investigate the formative years of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose and then to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina—and back again as its residents confront the BP oil spill.
Gradually, a unifying narrative emerges, a story about this country that we’ve never heard told this way. It’s like a fun-house hall-of-mirrors tour: Sullivan shows us who we are in ways we’ve never imagined to be true. Of course we don’t know whether to laugh or cry when faced with this reflection—it’s our inevitable sob-guffaws that attest to the power of Sullivan’s work....more
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.