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What Is, Is Natural
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.