Book review: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead

This is a piece I wrote for Jackson Free Press in March 2012. It never ran, so I’m posting it here.

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The New Journalists of the 1960s and 1970s—Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and others—used techniques associated more with fiction than nonfiction. Their pieces included heavy amounts of dialogue, setting, foreshadowing, metaphors, composite characters, and tonal shifts. This wasn’t “just-the-facts” reportage, not by a long shot, but high literature by other means.

Most prominently, these journalists inserted themselves into the story, filtering their reportage through their own experiences. The style was controversial but there’s no question of its influence. Pick up any issue of a serious American magazine and see if you can’t find examples of first-person, subjective journalism in every one.

In Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan carries the torch. Whether writing on Hurricane Katrina, the influence of the Southern Agrarians on literature, MTV’s “The Real World,” or ancient cave art in Kentucky and Tennessee, Sullivan adds elements of memoir and broader cultural commentary into his reportage.

The collection’s first piece, “Upon This Rock.” gives an account of camping out at Creation, the largest Christian rock festival in America. Over 100,000 people attend it annually. Sullivan goes and interviews festival-goers but it’s not long before he hears a band onstage that he first heard back in high school. Suddenly, Sullivan is delving into his youthful flirtation with born-again Christianity and his subsequent falling away from religion. By linking his life with those around him, Sullivan gets us to sympathize with people who might otherwise be obscure to us. He repeatedly makes connections between seemingly disparate subjects, and offers surprising insights on modern life.

The best Pulphead essays are profiles—of, for instance, Michael Jackson, Bunny Wailer, and Axl Rose. (Sullivan writes most passionately about pop music.) As Sullivan explores a personality, he expands outward into what that person reveals about the culture at-large. His essay on being Andrew Lytle’s ward is more about Sullivan’s development as a writer than it is about the once-famed, now-forgotten Southern Agrarian—though we learn lots about the Agrarians, too. The Bunny Wailer piece says lots about Jamaican culture and music, maybe more than it says about the mysterious Wailer.

Sullivan always entertains, and he’s often funny and moving at once. Here he is in “Feet in Smoke,” discussing his brother’s recovery post-electrocution:

The experience went from tragedy to tragicomedy to outright farce on a sliding continuum, so it’s hard to pinpoint just when one let onto another. He was the most delightful drunk you’d ever met—I had to follow him around the hospital like a sidekick to make sure he didn’t fall, because he couldn’t stop moving, couldn’t concentrate on anything longer than a second. He became a holy fool. He looked down into his palm, where the [guitar] fret and string had burned a deep, red cross into his skin, and said, “Hey, it’d be stigmata if there weren’t all those ants crawling in it.”

Sometimes, Sullivan overreaches. When he starts with an idea rather than a person or event, Sullivan’s pieces become digressions in search of a point. He’s sometimes too self-conscious, calling attention to the process of writing a piece as much as he does to the, you know, piece itself. “Upon This Rock” begins with a three-page preamble about how he came to report on Creation. In “The Last Wailer,” an otherwise terrific essay on interviewing reggae legend Bunny Wailer, he starts a section on Jamaica’s political history this way: “Before you turn away in anticipation of boredom, let me say that you may find yourself intrigued by the sheer fact that something this twisted is occurring on a U.S.-friendly island five hundred miles from our coast.”

Sullivan’s sometimes-wearying digressions on himself can obscure the collection’s larger purpose, which is to say this: the South is central to the shaping of American popular culture, not just a quaint outlier of it or an alien world apart. Sullivan hails from Kentucky and Tennessee; he lives in North Carolina. Most of the topics covered in Pulphead are in some way related to the South. Sullivan’s South, though, is cosmopolitan, invested in pop and postmodernism, and knows reality TV as well as Southern Gothic. Sullivan’s chosen genre—New Journalism—is a game-changer and largely a southern phenomenon. Tom Wolfe’s a Virginian. Hunter S. Thompson’s a Kentuckian, so much so that his first famous “gonzo” piece is titled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” Truman Capote was raised in Alabama. Willie Morris, who published many of these writers during his editorship of Harper’s Magazine, is a Mississippian.

Add John Jeremiah Sullivan to this list of notable writers. At his best, his ambitions justify New Journalism as a genre. At his worst, he’s still worth arguing over.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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