In November, whilst lazily browsing the internet in the perpetual Sunday that follows an essay deadline, I came across a tweet with a link to an article written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Having seen another tweet (I didn’t do much work last term) from Laurie Penny a few weeks previously strongly recommending Sullivan’s Pulphead, I decided to read the article and see what all the fuss was about.
The 25 minutes or so I spent reading that article – though down to sheer length it should be referred to as an essay – shook me. Not only because of the terrifying subject matter, which Sullivan uncovers and reveals with consummate skill. Nor because of Sullivan’s wit or the unexpected twist at the end. Mainly, I was shaken because I had just read another one which had surpassed and revolutionized my expectations firstly for magazine articles, then for extended essays, and finally, for writing as an art in itself.
I bought Pulphead the next day.
My initial fear that the other essays in the collection wouldn’t live up to the standard set by Violence of the Lambs was quickly swept aside. One only needs to read the first paragraph of the first essay – “Upon this Rock” – to realise this is an unusually gifted writer writing an unusual book (though that realization should probably occur when noticing the police mugshot of a young, skinny Axl Rose inexplicably placed opposite the title page). It is unlikely that there are any other books which encompass the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the life of the deranged polymath Rafinesque, Disneyworld, collectors of early American blues records and the possibility of an impending animal uprising in one volume.
And yet Sullivan manages to find a novel perspective on all of these widely diverse topics. This shows firstly his ability to write in his own voice. Throughout Pulphead, which spans 15 long essays, Sullivan’s distinctive narration never wavers, and indeed after a few essays the reader feels as though they are getting an insight into Sullivan as much as the subject matter. He writes as the blues guitarists of his native south once played, his technical proficiency freeing him to tell us a story that is identifiably his.
His flexibility also shows his apparent journalistic flair. Other than being mistaken for a pedophile on a Christian teen forum, Sullivan has an uncanny ability to get people to trust him and confide in him. Nowhere is this more evident than in The Last Wailer, in which Sullivan not only meets the notoriously guarded Bunny Wailer (of The Wailers), but ends up smoking marijuana and eating guinep in his back garden while Wailer treats him to an A-capella performance of ‘Let Him Go’.
Insofar as there can be a common thread in a selection of essays, Sullivan’s love of the American South is a constant presence through Pulphead. This is manifested mainly in stories about his own life, one of which, about Sullivan’s time living with nonagenarian southern writer Andrew Lytle, particularly shows the deep reverence in which Sullivan holds the culture of his native land. One can almost feel the deep frustration Sullivan has with the popular image of the South as the land of guns, Nascar and the clinically obese. He is certainly successful in presenting both mainstream (Axl Rose) and obscure (Mississippian cave-dwelling death cults) examples of how the South is not only heterogeneous but also culturally fertile.
The essays are long enough to tell a story, but not so long that they drag. Theoretically, the diversity and length of the essays means that if you don’t like an essay you can skip it and start the next one instead. But Sullivan’s writing is so compelling that even if you didn’t know or care about the stars of former American reality TV show Real World, his humour and his ability to create an interesting narrative will keep you reading.
Pulphead has a strong claim to be the most entertaining volume of pop culture essays to be compiled in recent years. Outrageously well written, hilarious, and easy to read, it will open the eyes of any reader to the reality of American life.
In truth though, the real show on display here is Sullivan; a true master of modern essay-writing.