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Pulphead: Essays [Paperback]

by John Jeremiah Sullivan
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 25, 2011 0374532907 978-0374532901 1
A New York Times Notable Book for 2011
One of Entertainment Weekly's Top 10 Nonfiction Books of the Year 2011
A Time Magazine Top 10 Nonfiction book of 2011
A Boston Globe Best Nonfiction Book of 2011
One of Library Journal's Best Books of 2011
 
A sharp-eyed, uniquely humane tour of America’s cultural landscape—from high to low to lower than low—by the award-winning young star of the literary nonfiction world.

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 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the  Month, November 2011: What a fresh and daring voice. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a dynamic and gutsy writer, a cross between Flannery O'Connor and a decaffeinated Tom Wolfe, with just the right dash of Hunter S. Thompson. In fourteen essays ranging from an Axl Rose profile to an RV trek to a Christian rock festival to the touching story of his brother's near-death electrocution, Sullivan writes funny, beautiful, and very real sentences. The sum of these stories portrays a real America, including the vast land between the coasts. Staying just this side of cynical, Sullivan displays respect for his subjects, no matter how freakish they may seem (see Axl Rose). Put another way: if Tom Waits wrote essays, they might sound like Pulphead. --Neal Thompson

Exclusive Amazon.com Interview:

(c) by Harry TaylorThough his stories have appeared for a decade in Harper's, GQ, and other magazines, John Jeremiah Sullivan wasn’t a recognizable name until Pulphead started landing on year-end best-books lists, including Time, the New York Times, and Amazon's Best Books of 2011. The New Yorker’s James Wood compares him to Raymond Carver - "with hints of Emerson and Thoreau." Elsewhere, Sullivan has been called the new Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace, or Hunter S. Thompson, or some combination of all three.

I prefer to think of him more as the Tom Waits of long-form journalism.

Description: http://static.typepad.com/.shared:v20111215.01-0-gf45a3bb:typepad:en_us/js/tinymce/plugins/pagebreak/img/trans.gifSullivan’s sportswriter father was an early and lasting influence. "The stuff he wrote was so weird, when I go back and look at it. It would almost have to be classified as creative non-fiction," Sullivan told me.

I asked Sullivan if his father encouraged him to become a writer.

"He did the smartest and best thing he could have done for me, which was to take a very coolly distant but encouraging attitude,” he said. “I think he could tell early on that it's what I was going to do, that I wasn't really suited for much else.

After college and a brief “lost period” in Ireland, Sullivan got an internship at The Oxford American magazine and spent a month in Mississippi, living in a brown-carpeted room at the Ole Miss hotel, with hookers conducting their business nearby.

One night, Sullivan told his editor, Marc Smirnoff, about his musician brother’s near-death electrocution from a microphone. Smirnoff suggested he write a story about it, giving Sullivan his first professional byline.

"It was just one of those things where somebody opens the door and steps aside and says, 'Don't f**k it up'," Sullivan said. "And that piece made a lot of cool things happen for me."

Cool things like bylines in Harper's, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Magazine.

Over the next decade he honed his reporting skills, his unique voice (personal not cynical, thoughtful not intellectual), and a particular interest in outliers. I asked: do you look for oddballs, or do they find you? "It probably betrays a weakness for grotesques," he said. "And grotesques give you little angles of insight into human nature. There are things they can't help exposing.

"Sometimes I take pleasure in writing about people who make it hard for you to see their basic humanity. It gives me a very clear task as a writer to insist on it."

Pulphead is filled with hunks of other people’s sometimes misshapen humanity.

"The things that can happen to people... it just blows your mind."

Four more questions for Sullivan:

  • Where do you work? "I used to be one of those people who could write anywhere but for the first time I've become real attached to this corner office in our house that’s become sort of a cocoon. I keep it real disgusting so nobody will ever want to come in here. My daughter will show it to friends, almost like you'd show somebody the dungeon."
  • Who are you reading? "It’s more about staying in constant contact with writing, always being into some writer. That keeps me inspired and it keeps me feeling like, when I sit down to write, it's part of a preexisting and ongoing conversation. It's not the scary void that people talk about of the white page. I do everything I can to cancel out that feeling."
  • You’re a fan of bourbon – can you write drunk? - "Drinking and smoking for me are useful for getting over humps. For cracking things open. But if I try to do it in a sustained way, it gets kind of sloppy and pudding-headed. So I have to introduce it into the process at the right moments … (Bourbon) gives you a little bit of that what-the-f**k feeling."
  • Do you think of yourself as a southern writer? "I'm not an authentic southerner by anyone's definition, and I don't self-identify as a southern writer … I'm interested in regionalism. The fact that I sort of grew up back and forth between the Midwest and the South, it sensitized me to the differences early on … Mainly I’m interested in the psycho-geography of regionalism, and how it gives shape to people's personalities.”

Review

“Sullivan seems able to do almost anything, to work in any register, and not just within a single piece but often in the span of a single paragraph…Pulphead is the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again…Sullivan’s writing is a bizarrely coherent, novel, and generous pastiche of the biblical, the demotic, the regionally gusty and the erudite.” —The New York Times Book Review

[Pulphead is] a big and sustaining pile of—as I’ve heard it put about certain people’s fried chicken—crunchy goodness . . . What’s impressive about Pulphead is the way these disparate essays cohere into a memoirlike whole. The putty that binds them together is Mr. Sullivan’s steady and unhurried voice. Reading him, I felt the way Mr. Sullivan does while listening to a Bunny Wailer song called ‘Let Him Go.’ That is, I felt ‘like a puck on an air-hockey table that’s been switched on.’ Like well-made songs, his essays don’t just have strong verses and choruses but bridges, too, unexpected bits that make subtle harmonic connections . . . 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.’” —The New York Times

“Sullivan’s essays have won two National Magazine Awards, and here his omnivorous intellect analyzes Michael Jackson, Christian rock, post-Katrina New Orleans, Axl Rose and the obscure 19th century naturalist Constantine Rafinesque. His compulsive honesty and wildly intelligent prose recall the work of American masters of New Journalism like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.” —Time

“Sullivan’s essays stay with you, like good short stories—and like accomplished short fiction, they often will, over time, reveal a fuller meaning . . . Whether he ponders the legacy of a long-dead French scientist or the unlikely cultural trajectory of Christian rock, Sullivan imbues his narrative subjects with a broader urgency reminiscent of other great practitioners of the essay-profile, such as New Yorker writers Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling or Gay Talese during his ’60s Esquire heyday . . . [Pulphead] reinforces [Sullivan’s] standing as among the best of his generation’s essayists.” —Bookforum

“[The essays in Pulphead are] among the liveliest magazine features written by anyone in the past 10 years . . . What they have in common, though, whether low or high of brow, is their author's essential curiosity about the world, his eye for the perfect detail, and his great good humor in revealing both his subjects' and his own foibles . . . a collection that shows why Sullivan might be the best magazine writer around.” —NPR

“One ascendant talent who deserves to be widely read and encouraged is John Jeremiah Sullivan . . . Pulphead is one of the most involving collections of essays to appear in many a year.” —Larry McMurtry, Harper’s Magazine

“Each beautifully crafted essay in John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection Pulphead is a self-contained world…Sullivan's masterful essays invite an honest confrontation with reality, especially when considered in light of one another….Pulphead compels its readers to consider each as an equal sum in the bizarre arithmetic of American identity . . . [Sullivan is] as red-hot a writer as they come.” —BookPage

The age-old strangeness of American pop culture gets dissected with hilarious and revelatory precision…Sullivan writes an extraordinary prose that's stuffed with off-beat insight gleaned from rapt, appalled observations and suffused with a hang-dog charm. The result is an arresting take on the American imagination.—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

 

 


Product Details

  • Paperback: 369 pages
  • Publisher: FSG Originals; 1 edition (October 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374532907
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374532901
  • Product Dimensions: 2 x 3 x 0.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #17,882 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
47 of 49 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful, thoughtful, funny essays October 30, 2011
Format:Paperback
For years, I've been reading John Jeremiah Sullivan's essays in GQ, the Paris Review, and other publications with pleasure and admiration. Now his pieces have been collected in one handy paperback, and re-reading them reminds me that he's simply one of the most wonderful writers working today, in any genre. His voice is funny and informed, but also warm and personal and empathetic. He sees his subjects with great compassion; one of the great surprises of his essays is the way that he goes deep below the surface when writing about pop phenomenon (such as Michael Jackson or the cast of The Real World) that the rest of us might be quick to dismiss. Sullivan is also a master of the short-form memoir. His essay "Mr. Lytle" is a heartbreaking portrait of a literary mentor that is also about intergenerational friendship, sexuality, the South, and so many other things. "Pulphead" is a delight.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Virtuoso writer, leveling collection October 29, 2011
By Hannah
Format:Paperback
A writer of such ghastly intelligence, my own brain feels almost palsied by comparison. I would mind, but anyone who can produce such a fierce, incisive wit while managing not to take cheap pot-shots at One Tree Hill deserves those National Magazine Awards. I've used these essays in the classroom, to get friends, to remind myself what how good writing can be.
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30 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of a Kind November 1, 2011
Format:Paperback
This book has received a lot of notice in the past week from influential sources. Sullivan's name gets put into sentences with Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, and David Foster Wallace. However, I find those comparisons lacking. Sullivan's got something in his voice that sets him apart from those guys, something that might be a willingness to go vulnerable, and to mount a prodigious intellect on top of that willingness. True curiosity requires it. Wolfe, Thompson, and DFW didn't have it so much, as far as I can tell, although they did have tremendous merits. Bob Dylan, as great as he is, and as much as I love his work, doesn't have it. In 50 years since Dylan first appeared, has a female writer ever written anything of import about Dylan? In the terrific Bob Dylan Reader there's only one piece by a woman, a brief inconsequential piece by Joyce Carol Oates.

So much of the popularity of Wolfe, Thompson, DFW, and Dylan is male wish-fulfillment, and those four artists knew it. Sullivan may know it, but his work doesn't show it. I don't remember any strong, supportive pieces about Wolfe, Thompson, or DFW by women, either. I'm not a Sullivan scholar, but I check out most of the literary outlets fairly regularly and I know that the influential blogger Maud Newton is a vocal supporter of Sullivan's.

It will be interesting to see what Sullivan produces over the next twenty years. He could emerge as the most significant writer of the time, somebody I'd put in a sentence with Didion, Sebald, Berger, McPhee, and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Genius and Kindness November 20, 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In "Pulphead" John Jeremiah Sullivan has written the funniest book by Chuck Klosterman, the sunniest book by David Foster Wallace, and the literary follow-up to Bob Dylan's "The Basement Tapes." Does his sounding like other writers mean he has a less than unique voice of his own? Perhaps. But that is a byproduct of what Keats called "negative capability:" being more interested in the the subjects of one's essays than in oneself. There will be plenty of time for self-exploration in what I hope will be many other books. Right now, Sullivan values elegance over quirkiness, clarity over color. And each time he trains his Swarovzski-sniper-(in)sight at his targets, he shoots bullets of pure love, if anything reserving even more understanding and sympathy for the infamous. These essays are a demonstration of how the vinegar of genius when stirred into the milk of human kindness and aged in the dark cave of the soul yields an inexhaustible variety of tastes and textures. Each piece here surprises and one-ups its predecessor. And oh, the erudition. In these pages one reads that Auden said "all art results from humiliation" and also that elephants regularly rape rhinoceroses. Unless Sullivan is making this up. He might be: he is an ingenious, adroit, admitted liar. But even his lies reveal the truth. This book is a nexus where the soiled and tangled roots of American myth meet the unreality of our media culture with the contradictory braided reflectiveness of an Escher engraving. As a Southern epic-comic social critic, Sullivan has not yet scaled the heights of Twain or John Kennedy Toole, but has already far surpassed Tom Wolfe. Hurry up with that novel, but for God's sake, don't kill yourself over it. Even if you never equal this collection, it will be good enough.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Best collection of essays this year December 9, 2011
Format:Paperback
You do not have to be Southern to appreciate how good Sullivan's writing is.

I'm not a GQ or Paris Review reader so I didn't know of Sullivan until I read a rave of this collection in the NYT Book Review. It was spot-on. The essays range from LOL funny (one about an MTV Real World "celebrity" milking his 15 minutes; one about trying to interview Axl Rose, but getting his childhood friend instead; and parts of the Bunny Wailer profile, esp about buying him great ganja) to jaw-dropping (animals are attacking humans like never before!) to tender (post-Katrina New Orleans interviews and observations; RIP Andrew Lytle and even... Michael Jackson).

I hope he sells so many books that he'll never have to rent his house to bad CW soaps again.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Pulp non fiction!
Loved this collection, consider him a genius at capturing pop culture and not making me feel embarrassed by some of my obsessions. Read more
Published 4 days ago by Auntiebubs
5.0 out of 5 stars A top flight book of essays
Do you want to learn something new? Read this book. Do you want to learn what a good creative non-fiction essay looks like? Read this book. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Dorothy Potter
5.0 out of 5 stars It would make a non-reader like to read
I'm not a bookworm by any means, but this book was very entertaining. I don't even like essays, in general. On multiple occasions I found myself laughing out loud. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Max Jenius
4.0 out of 5 stars Nice Collection
Excellent and engaging collection of essays. Most deal with music related topics, but even these are broad based. Sullivan is an amusing author. Well worth reading.
Published 3 months ago by D. G. Hill
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Writing
I finished this book over the course of a single night, that's how good the writing is in these essays. Read more
Published 4 months ago by zaron5551
3.0 out of 5 stars Not for everyone
This is a book by a young author, and I have to say that I found the essays and their topics more than a little weird. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Zippy
3.0 out of 5 stars Different strokes for different folks drives this story.
It was okay, but not really something to which I can relate to any degree only because the genre was not one that was of particular interest to me, although I read the entire... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Joann
3.0 out of 5 stars Some good, some tedious
Some stories were good, some tedious. I had a hard time going through the ones pertaining to music, and there were a few of them. The prose style got me confused at times.
Published 5 months ago by Pat B.
1.0 out of 5 stars Lots of rambling...
I couldn't even force myself to finish this book. It started out ok but then it just seemed to go on and on. The author rambles about everything and nothing. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Alicia Rector
4.0 out of 5 stars Very engaging.
This guy writes very intelligently and thoroughly about an amazing variety of subjects. Each essay draws the reader into new world and leaves you wanting more.
Published 6 months ago by Rory Woodmansee
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