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on January 2, 2012
In "Unknown Bards", Sullivan's essay about American Blues music, we get this quote from Dean Blackwood of Revenant Records, "...I have always felt like there wasn't enough of a case being made for [blues musicians'] greatness. You've got to have their stuff together to understand the potency of their work." The same can be said about John Jeremiah Sullivan.

Until now, Sullivan's essays have entered the public sphere only piecemeal through periodicals like GQ, Harper's Magazine, and The Paris Review. With "Pulphead", we get the first compilation of Sullivan's essays, and only the second book of his ever published. What emerges from this collection, more so than if one were to read these essays on their own, is a uniquely talented American writer and voice.

Sullivan's prose is humble and emotional, while never self-centered or overbearing.

His prose is opposite that of a political pundit's, a sophist sportscaster, or "expert" social media consultant. Our society is quick to confuse wisdom with declarative opinions. From Sullivan, don't look for grandiose reformations of opinions into facts. Words like guarantee, definitely, undoubtedly are as foreign to Sullivan as pretentious qualifiers like, "My twenty years of successful leadership on the Hill..." Or, "I have been saying all along, and I will say it again, John Doe is the best athlete since..."

Sullivan deals in grey. In his essays, he even takes self-deprecating swipes at his own credibility as a writer: "I don't know. I had no pseudo-anthropological moxie left." Or, "Ordinarily, one is tense about interrogating strangers, worried about freezing or forgetting to ask what'll turn out to be the only important question." Or about Axl Rose, who the entire essay "The Final Comeback of Axl Rose" was supposed to be about, "I don't know him at all."

Such self-deprecation is uncommon from writers, and requires immense self-confidence. These swipes, in their humanity, though, have a way of increasing Sullivan's credibility. Such subtleties are the touch of a confident Velazquez at the height of his technical mastery.

Sullivan's technical mastery of his craft, his tantalizing, crackling prose, is what allows the reader to learn not only more about the subject of the Sullivan's eye, but also about Sullivan himself.

Whether John Jeremiah Sullivan is writing about pop culture, youth movements, religion, music, or geology, there is always reverberating just beneath the surface of the lead story the narrative of Sullivan's own life.

The story of Sullivan's life has a way of turning the reader inward. The reader becomes a reader of his or her own story.

In "Upon This Rock", Sullivan journeys to the Creation Christian Rock Festival. We learn that Sullivan began this journey with the mindset that his trip to Creation would be "a lark". Instead, Sullivan provides a vivid account of a humbling, human journey of self-exploration, "I went back to the trailer and had, as the ladies say where I'm from, a colossal go-to-pieces. I started to cry and then stopped myself for some reason. I felt nonsensically raw and lonely. What a d%ickhead I'd been, thinking that this trip would be a lark."

In this raw emotion, and through empathy for the people he is writing about, Sullivan achieves at Creation some clarity about his own life, and his own relationship with spirituality.

Sullivan's prose in "Upon This Rock" stands up to today's frenetic, digital, fragmented, and hyperlinked world. His prose is like a glorious mixed-media work of art: a orange yarn glued on top of a black and white photo, underneath and oil painting of an purple-pink evening sky.

Some critics are quick to draw parallels between Sullivan's style and that of David Foster Wallace: the patched together, disjointed brilliance. A more apt description of Sullivan is that he is a self-assured, humble, updated, and less egotistical Hunter S. Thompson.

In his journey to Kingston to meet the "Last Wailer," the influence of fellow Kentuckian Hunter S. Thompson is most apparent: "There was a big open-air bar. `Mind if we smoke?' Llewis asked...We rolled a two-sheeter under a giant sign that said NO GANJA SMOKING." Llewis is not the "Last Wailer". He is just a tour guide, helping Sullivan with the essay. The essay is about neither Llewis, nor Sullivan, but in a way it does become about them, and about something bigger than just Bunny Wailer.

Like with Thompson's writings, in Sullivan's essays, we are always presented the author's story. But Sullivan's first person narrative is far less "Gonzo" than Thompson's.

Sullivan strikes a tone that is more gently, lovingly irreverent than that of "The Decadent and The Depraved" (Thompson's brilliant essay about the Kentucky Derby). Sullivan replaces Thompson's vitriolic I'm-not-a-member-of-the-Country-Club-so everyone-who-is-is-a-small-minded-sycophant bitterness, with an even-though-a-Country-Club-can-be-a-culturally-empty-place-there-are-individuals-inside-of-it-that-I-am-sure-have-some-vulnerability-some-humanity-that-I-can-write-about empathy.

Sullivan opens his heart to his subjects. While his methods- for interviewing and writing alike- may not be ganja-free, and are unconventional- they are far from bitter, angry, or temperamental. A warm self-confidence, respect for mankind, self-deprecation, and desire to know pulsates through Sullivan's writing like a bubbling brook.

In "Peyton's Place" Sullivan has crafted a shrewd commentary on pop culture, parenthood, and of the way media in its many forms is blurring the lines between what is real and unreal, public and private. With a keen sense of humor, and a big heart, Sullivan has an adroit and playful way of mending his language to match his subject, "The brunet's question had given me a small, surprising tilt of nostalgia. Did we know that we used to be on a show? Did we know that?" One can almost hear the unwritten "OMG!!" at the end of that sentence.

Sullivan doesn't play with language in this way to be demeaning; rather, he uses it as a way to show empathy, and to self-reflect. "Brunet" is a carefully, brilliantly chosen word. This superficial identification is similar to the kinds of superficiality that occurs within the very sitcom being filmed in Sullivan's home- a show that Sullivan is neither admonishing nor praising, because he is both removed from the show, but also has an indirect hand in fostering its production.

Sullivan doesn't deal in absolutes. He is constantly exploring through his pen. He is trying to determine what is really real, who he really is, how he relates to another person, what it all means. His language will disarm you with humor, with a familiarity and modernity that carries his words- with a Trojan horse-like slippage- into your psyche for a long, long while. "Pulphead" is a collection of essays that proves Sullivan is a young and lively Southern writer not to be overlooked.
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on January 6, 2012
I devoured this book in two days. Based on what I'd read beforehand, I was expecting a book of pop criticism, a la Klosterman. Instead, what I got was much more varied and profound. Generally speaking, the collection is a secret history of the United States; many of the essays walk a line between what can be known, and what cannot, in our American past. For example, Sullivan spends an hour, in one of the essays, trying to decipher the lyrics to a haunting, mostly-forgotten blues song. In another, he imagines an encounter between a cave painter, thousands of years ago, and a cave painting made thousands of years before that. The painting is an object of wonder and mystery to this historical would-be artist, just as his paintings will eventually be for us.

A whole book of nothing but very clever essays on mainstream American pop culture can end up making the reader himself feel trapped at the carnival. By instead turning pop culture (The Real World, Axl Rose, etc) into another chapter in an ongoing American story, Sullivan elevates both his subject and his own full-length debut.
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VINE VOICEon December 28, 2011
Thematic strength isn't what you usually find in a book of journalistic essays, but apparently Sullivan is drawn to strangeness wherever it rears its head. And in this world, strangeness is de rigueur. These essays wander from a Christian rock festival to a brother of Sullivan, who exhibits all sorts of odd behavior after a near-electrocution. Then there's a near-encounter with Guns n' Roses' Axl Rose, a fey old gay man, then America's ancient cave dwellers and those who find and sell their artifacts. Perhaps the oddest two are one on Jamaica's Rastafarians and another on a naturalist's theory of why animals - worldwide - seem to be increasingly attacking humans. Two pieces on reality shows could very well have been left out - their oddness speaks for itself.

It would be easy to treat each of these subjects as caricatures, but that isn't Sullivan's angle. There's always something a bit confessional in his work; he's very rarely cynical, and he seems to be at least a little invested in each subject he approaches. As such, his writing is both expository and personal, and there's not a little bit of charm to each. It's as if Sullivan wants us to admit to a lot of this strangeness in each of us. And that's a refreshing point of view in a literary world replete with postmodernist cynicism.
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on May 1, 2012
This book caught my attention on the best-of-2011 lists and I bought the paperback impulsively,which is the way i usually buy my stuff.
I read a lot everyday at work. When I get home, many times I do not have the patience to read a "book" what with my addictive personality wanting to know how the story ends. Instead, I read a lot of magazines. I can finish an article without a problem, and I can go to sleep having finished reading what I started.
Pulphead is a collection of articles that Mr. Sullivan published in various magazines over the years. There is something about each one that resonates with me, and that allows me to get lost in its pages and forget about both the day that was, and the day that is about to arrive.
This is (was) the last hard-copy book I bought before I started to accumulate e-books on my kindle. And even-though I may have 50 books in the little machine ready to be read, and a few old magazines waiting to be finished, more often than not I just pick-up Pulphead and listen to Mr. Sullivan .
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on October 10, 2012
Eclectic doesn't begin to describe this collection of essays. Whether it's a trip to Creation (a Christian music festival) or down a cave in Tennessee, Sullivan pulls the reader easily along with plenty of context and, of course, the colorful personalities who really make his compositions sing. Some of the latter, like Michael Jackson or Axl Rose, are easily remembered and, in Pulphead, nicely reconsidered. Other subjects, like Southern School writer Andrew Lytle, whose works were unknown to this particular deep south English major, come as an introduction and even something of a revelation. Pulphead may sound mushy, but the writing is sharp.
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on May 8, 2012
John Jeremiah Sullivan is a talented writer who shows great compassion on subjects not normally shown empathy. A great example, and probably the second-best essay of the collection behind "Mr. Lytle: An Essay," is the very first of the collection--"On This Rock"--about Sullivan's travels to a Christian rock concert. He doesn't sneer, and he doesn't condemn. There is no hint of superiority. "John Jeremiah Sullivan" the character is presented as a bit of a clown (probably more so than is actually true . . . though maybe not, who knows). We are meant to laugh at him as much as with him. We learn JJS himself went through a Christian-phase in high school. By understanding and recognizing his empathy we are empathetic. We were once young, foolish, brave, stupid, sad, happy. We know these things. JJS reminds us. Great collection.

Not a revolution for essays/magazine writing, but it's about as good as it gets without reworking the whole damn thing.
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on December 29, 2011
I had yet to read any of John Jeremiah Sullivan's essays and after seeing this on quite a few Top 10 non-fiction list for 2011, I was eager to dig into this collection and see what all the fuss was about. Sullivan has a mighty fine command of the English language and puts it to great use in "Pulphead", an essay that runs the gamut from rock to religion to family and everything in between.

As I think about all the essays in this collections, there are certainly no duds and quite a few are top notch writing. Sullivan delivers probably the most thought-provoking and balanced essay I've read on Michael Jackson, forcing even the most cynical reader (me) to stop and think about things differently. Sullivan traverses the music landscape from Jackson to heavy metal (Axl Rose) to reggae and Bunny Wailer to an amazing essay on country blues. He even makes a stop into the land of Christian rock, attending a weekend festival and musing on why the terms Christian and rock seem to be oxymoronic. Lest one thinks that music is the only topic that Sullivan is adept writing about, he tackles the near death of his brother (electrocution from a microphone) to an obscure naturalist in 19th century America to whether animal attacks on human beings represent a growing trend and cause for concern by homo sapiens. Sullivan manages to bring interest to the long forgotten genesis of reality TV, "The Real World", and talk about the time his house was used over multiple seasons for the teen drama, "One Tree Hill". In addition to the Michael Jackson essay, the two other essays that shine above the rest are one where he explores the suicide (or murder) of US census worker Bill Sparkman and the other where he writes about his experience living with writer Andrew Lytle.

Sullivan certainly entertains and provokes in this amazingly rich body of work that should keep just about anyone entertained. While I read it sequentially, one can certainly pick it up and read one essay and come back at a later time and choose anything that suits their mood. Now that I've "discovered" Sullivan, I'm certain to seek out his writing without waiting for his next published set of essays.
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on May 2, 2012
As an introduction to a new literary voice, John Jeremiah Sullivan's PULPHEAD is as much or more than anyone could possibly hope for. While he reports from a wide variety of cultural milieu, they are all on the fringes of society, like Christian rock festivals, Kentucky Indian artifact bandits, and outsider scientists who fear that that animals are growing more sentient and organized, and are poised to try and take over, a la PLANET OF THE APES. Sullivan is a character in all of these stories, but he never overwhelms, preferring to stay largely on the edge as a wry, interested, open-minded, and knowledgeable observer. He lets us see these people as they see themselves and their world, and while he sometimes judges them, in unerrably amusing ways, he is never less than fair. Reading his work is a treat, and I look forward to seeing more and even greater things from him.
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on April 19, 2017
I love this book - great for if you need an easier read, as they are essays. We read it for my book club and we all raved. 10/10 would recommend!
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on December 10, 2015
This is truly one of the best collection of essays I have come across in a long time! The topics are far ranging, but through them all, I feel as if I am in the hands of a truly excellent writer, and I trust that no matter the subject matter, Sullivan will take good care of me, the reader, as well as give me a lot to think over and to savor. Five stars!
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