The celebrated magazine writer’s increasingly rare brand of journalism is showcased in this debut essay collection.
Pulphead: collection of John Jeremiah Sullivan's best essays
Farrar Straus Giroux
I am convinced that anyone who writes in praise of John Jeremiah Sullivan has an ulterior motive. There's no shame or dishonesty in claiming him as "the best essayist of his generation" (Time magazine) or his debut essay collection, Pulphead, as "the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (New York Times Book Review)". These things might very well be true. But to argue on behalf of Sullivan is also to throw your weight behind a kind of journalism that seems perennially perched on the precipice of obsolescence. The kind in which wizened big-city editors with disposable income send a writer - often a would-be or has-been novelist - into the jungle, or to a series of truck stops, or to the Mojave Desert, with no expectation of receiving anything newsworthy, culturally relevant or even necessarily printable in return.
What they're looking for, and opening expense accounts for, is reportage anchored by the sort of observational precision that stops readers in their tracks - a line like Sullivan's judgement, made on the grounds of America's largest Christian Rock festival, that "faith is a logical door which locks behind you". Every journalist wants something like Sullivan's freedom of movement and subject, without admitting to ourselves that we lack his perspicacity, his curiosity, and his lyricism. We praise John Jeremiah Sullivan in order to convince ourselves that a career like his is still possible.
Yes, we're envious. The Kentucky-born writer is under 40, he's won numerous awards and The Paris Review seems to have invented the title of "Southern Editor" in order to fix Sullivan's name to the masthead. Though he writes regularly for GQ and Harper's and has started contributing memorably to the New York Times Magazine, the essay subjects in Pulphead seem to reflect nothing more unified than Sullivan's own obscure passions.
It's hard to picture an editor providing a compelling financial justification for sending his journalist to Kingston, Jamaica, to find (and conduct certain small-scale illegal activities with) a reclusive former member of Bob Marley's band. Sometimes he doesn't even need to seek out a story. Where some writers will visit the set of a TV show, Sullivan lets the set come to him, as in Peyton's Place, in which the teenage soap opera One Tree Hill shoots a series of episodes at Sullivan's home in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Needless to say, Sullivan is often the protagonist of his essays, and the seeming impossibility of publishing these stories is sometimes acknowledged directly.
In Violence of the Lambs, an essay commissioned by GQ about the future of the human race, and Sullivan's apparent conviction that it will be decided by large-scale war between man and beast, he writes: "In short, I want you to know that I tried and tried, for months, to write about something other than what I've ended up writing on here, a tangent that popped up early in the research but immediately screamed career-killer and was repeatedly shunted aside ... But as I tried every way I knew to find some legitimate half-truths about the future for you to read about on your flight to Dallas or wherever your loved ones live - and I do suggest you visit them soon, as in this year, I really do - the problem became that people who make a profession of thinking seriously about the future won't really tell you anything that isn't cautious, hedged, and quadruple-qualified, because as I came slowly to comprehend and deal with, no one knows what's going to happen in the future."
Direct address, earnest delivery, admissions of having "tried", run-on sentences: David Foster Wallace is the obvious progenitor here. Last year, Sullivan penned a heartfelt review of Wallace's posthumous The Pale King in GQ, noting that "he was one of those writers who, even when you weren't sounding like him, made you think about how you weren't sounding like him". Which does, yes, sound a little bit like him. Sullivan doesn't have a similar overarching moral or literary project; he's looser, less punctilious, more shaggy-dog storyteller than intimidating genius. Pulphead is titled after a Norman Mailer coinage, but unlike Mailer's generational cohort of New Journalists, Sullivan is too unpretentious to goad his prose into devouring (or defining) our Grand Cultural Moment. Surprisingly, the book's least essential pieces are the ones most tethered to current events, confronting ready-made journalistic touchstones like Hurricane Katrina and the Tea Party. Sullivan's off-kilter brand of social anthropology thrives when he selects a more unlikely topic.
Pulphead's opening essay, Upon This Rock, chronicles Sullivan's attempt to report on the Creation Festival of Christian Rock in rural Pennsylvania, and it begins with a number of self-conscious pratfalls. He trolls online message boards in an attempt to recruit evangelical youths as travel partners, and is quickly taken for a creep. He wants to rent a camper van, but his late arrival leaves only one remaining option: an unwieldy, dangerously impractical 29-foot RV. The setup seems familiar: Sullivan is making fun of himself in order to ethically justify his intention to lay comic waste to his easy targets: a group of young Americans deluded enough to devote themselves to off-brand, watered-down guitar music scrubbed of any devilish appeal. Instead, Sullivan breaks into the confessional mode, offering the reader a complicated and unresolved account of his own adolescent "Jesus phase", an experience he neither regrets nor deplores. At his high-school friend's weekly Bible study, Sullivan was "powerfully stirred on a level that didn't depend on my naivete. The sheer passionate engagement of it caught my imagination: nobody had told me there were Christians like this". Though his faith may have lapsed, today's Sullivan still refers to Jesus as "the most beautiful dude", and his uncondescending - though still mostly hilarious - treatment of the Creation faithful seems to borrow from that very dude's principles of empathy and justice. He even makes a few friends.
This spirit of generosity is on even more surprising display in the book's finest essay, Michael, a heartbreaking elegy for the overexposed and ultimately unknowable King of Pop. He begins by asking: "How do you talk about Michael Jackson unless you talk about Prince Screws?" Who? In Sullivan's telling, Prince was an Alabama cotton slave whose grandson of the same name left the South for Indiana as part of the 20th-century Great Migration of American blacks to the industrial heartland. The latter Prince had a daughter, and that daughter's son, born in Gary, Indiana, would become the most successful entertainer of all time. Michael named both his sons Prince, "to honour his mother, whom he adored, and to signal a restoration. So the ridiculous moniker given by a white man to his black slave, the way you might name a dog, was bestowed by a black king upon his pale-skinned sons and heirs. We took the name for an affectation and mocked it." This is a gesture of love and fairness towards an icon so often treated with gawking scorn, but it's also just good journalism - Sullivan did his research, rooting Michael Jackson's very existence in a vivid historical irony, and if we feel ashamed when reading these sentences it's for our lack of curiosity.
The only Sullivan preoccupation that permeates multiple essays is his relationship with the American South. He delivers an idiosyncratic piece about contacting the otherworldly, since-deceased steel-string guitarist John Fahey in an attempt to verify seemingly unintelligible lyrics in prewar country blues songs, and a prize-winning personal essay about his experience as a 20-year-old college student living with the ageing, irascible Southern Agrarian novelist Andrew Nelson Lytle. "I was under the tragic spell of the South," he writes in that essay, "which either you've felt or you haven't ... 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." His meditations on Southernness and place weave threads of autobiography through the miscellany of Pulphead, in which personal revelations outweigh journalistic scoops. His earlier book, Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son, similarly combined the memoir form with investigations of regional history. He seems incapable of doing one thing without the other.
Pulphead is composed entirely of previously published magazine features, and so it is, perhaps inevitably, an uneven and haphazard compendium. Sullivan writes on a wide range of disconnected subjects, and if you find cave-spelunking or Native American burial mounds less than seductive, Sullivan's enthusiasm and erudition will only take you so far. But the book's imperfections reward perseverance; dead-ends and loose threads are the surest proof of a journalism that remains blissfully unhitched from the imperatives of financial profit. If we take Sullivan's talent to be something other than otherworldly, we can more easily celebrate a great magazine writer instead of the Last Great Magazine Writer.
Akiva Gottlieb writes about film for The Nation.