It’s rare to find a writer this hard to pigeonhole who is simultaneously the kind of writer that is up there on the high wire – and doing just fine, thank you very much. The blurb on the back of Pulphead compared John Jeremiah Sullivan to Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion. To be honest, after finishing the collection, I don’t understand the Thompson comparison, besides the fact that they both hail from Kentucky.
Skimming the table of contents, you’ll notice essays on Michael Jackson, the fall of Axl Rose, obsessive blues music archivists, and a visit to Bunny Wailer. I immediately pegged John Jeremiah Sullivan as the next Chuck Klosterman – only, unlike Klosterman, Sullivan has not written for Spin magazine. Not that he couldn’t – after finishing Pulphead, the first conclusion a reader can draw is that this cat has chops, and could write for anybody.
The further I got into this collection, I realized I was wrong – Sullivan is not just for fans of Klosterman (or that other great music writer, Greil Marcus). Pulphead feels a little like David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Funny Thing I'll Never Do Again, a nonfiction collection that I enjoyed much more than any of Wallace’s fiction. Indeed, Sullivan reviewed Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel for GQ – it was there I discovered that Sullivan almost wrote one of my favourite Foster Wallace essays, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience.’ Essays run the gamut from fun, light pieces on pop culture, to more serious academic prose – and do so flawlessly, conveying the author’s intelligence and curiosity with a style that is not as dense as Foster Wallace’s.
And then I read even farther into the collection, finding articles on obscure French naturalists, Mississippi caves, and a very disturbing essay on the increase of animal violence (I should be clear – animals are the perpetrators, not the victims). These essays on science and the natural world echoed another famous nonfiction writer who explored wide-ranging topics, John McPhee.
At this point in his career, Sullivan has been published in magazines and journals as varied as GQ, The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The Oxford American – the latter of which is a great magazine that focuses on the American South (and is an entirely appropriate vehicle for Sullivan to explore his own Southern roots). It's clear that Sullivan could compose an article worthy of The New Yorker just as easily as he could produce a piece for Rolling Stone.
In many collections of nonfiction, the focus is generally pretty narrow. Authors have their subjects and themes, and rarely do they stray far from that comfort zone. Not that this is a bad thing. The last great collection of nonfiction I read was David Grann’s The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, which suffers not in the least from having one single theme (namely, crime and obsession). In regards to subject matter, Sullivan’s comfort zone seems to be everything, and he manages to convey a sense of passion as well as an impressive expertise in every subject he tackles.
What’s fun about Pulphead is that going through this collection, you literally have no idea where Sullivan is going to take you next, and not just geographically. Mississippi. North Carolina. Jamaica. Post-Katrina New Orleans. Which reminds me – there’s also politics, in small doses. Sullivan touches on politics in a small piece on the aforementioned Katrina as well as a more probing piece on the Tea Party movement, where I appreciated the fact that Sullivan does not immediately reveal his own opinion – and when he does, it is with a sense of balance (as in, there is no axe grinding on a soapbox). In reading this feature, I found myself checking the book's acknowledgments and asking, “Didn’t this guy write for Harper’s? Shouldn’t he be crushing Tea Party members?”
There are biographical pieces such as the essay on the near-death experience of a family member, a complicated relationship with a professor, and the author renting his new house to be uased as a set for the TV show One Tree Hill. Even the works that are not explicitly biographical have a little of the author's experiences bleeding into the writing, making for very personal and intimate readings.
These are witty, erudite, smart essays. There is education as well as humour, highbrow and lowbrow subjects. The only thing wrong with this collection is that there is not more of it. This is not hyperbole – Pulphead does not contain all of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s magazine writing, which means that hopefully we can look forward to another anthology, and soon. Collections like this don’t come along very often.
If you’d like to sample Sullivan’s work, some of his pieces from GQ are still online. ‘Upon This Rock’ describes Sullivan's experiences attending a Christian rock festival (as well as thoughts on his own faith) and can be found here, and you can find ‘The Final Comeback of Axl Rose’ here.