I haven’t read too much Non-Fiction this year, so I decided to take advantage of Non-Fiction November hosted by Regular Rumination, Sophisticated Dorkiness, I’m Lost in Books and Doing Dewey to give me a nudge in the non-fiction direction and it was well worth it!
Southern writer Flannery O’Connor once said,
The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, another writer proud of his Southern roots in Kentucky is certainly not afraid of staring, of talking a long, hard, incisive look at topics and people that others may often look past.
Pulphead is a collection of his long-form journalism, essays which have appeared in various American magazines and which explore popular, unpopular and often unexplored side of American culture.
At first glance, these essays don’t seem to have much in common with each other. Many are straight up music pieces, some looking at the personas of superstars like Michael Jackson and Axl Rose, some exploring more the more niche genres of music of Blues, Jamaican reggae and Christian Rock. He explores other forms of pop culture such as the reality TV show The Real World and the fact that his family home moonlights as a set in One Tree Hill. Other essays are more personal; his brother’s near death from electrocution while playing in a rock band and his stint as live-in helper to Southern writer Andrew Nelson Lytle, a job that comes to an ignominious end when Sullivan wakes to find the old man fondling his genitals. Others seem to come from more left-field, there is an essay on 19th century naturalist and forerunner to Darwin, Constantine Rafinesque and another on cave paintings in Kentucky and the subsequent confrontations between looters and archaeologists.
What holds these essays together is the author’s approach. John Jeremiah Sullivan displays genuine curiosity and warmth for his subjects, while at the same time displaying a sharp intelligence and love of research. He seems to have an extraordinary empathy for his subjects, a subjective love nestled within his objective reporting which eschews all irony and takes people at face value. Take the opening essay ‘Upon this Rock’ where he travels in a giant SUV to Creation the biggest Christian Rock Festival in the US. This could have been a straight up opportunity for Sullivan to take the piss out of less educated, less liberal, less enlightened folk such as him, but he resists the cultural tourism tag and, by explaining about his own brush with Christianity in his youth, creates a middle ground where they are as valued as he.
I thought about Darius, Jake, Josh, Bub, Ritter and Pee-Wee, whom I doubted I’d ever see again, whom I’d come to love, and who loved God – for it’s true….they were crazy, and they loved God – and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that, which I was never capable of.
That is Sullivan’s skill. He has an open ability to question himself and what he believes in the course of the essays and in turn urges the reader to question as well. His essay about Michael Jackson may be one of the most powerful pieces I have ever read. He gives Jackson’s legacy a chance to be restored without denying the possibility that the claims against him were true. Sullivan gives Axl Rose and the reality TV stars of The Real World equal billing, leading the reader by the hand through worlds that may not be familiar, that may not even at first glance be interesting and reveals their central truths.
My God, have there been more tears shed than on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world? Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them – too many shows and too many people on the shows – for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.
While reading Pulphead I was taking notes on obscure blues artists to check out, nipping over to YouTube to watch Guns ‘N’ Roses performances and listening to Bob Marley. Sullivan’s enthusiasm for each of his subjects thoroughly won me over and even the stories on topics that I thought wouldn’t interest me so much – the rise of the Tea Party, Rafinesque – were thoroughly engaging.
It helps that he is a sharp, funny writer. Discussing a rap-rock band he says;
The justification for rap rock seems to be that if you take really bad rock and put really bad rap over it. The result is somehow good, provided the raps are being barked by an overweight white guy with cropped hair and forearm tattoos.
It also probably helps that odd things have happened to him. He did share a bed with a 90 year old paean of American literature. William Shatner did make a programme about his brother’s near death experience at the hands of his microphone. His house does feature in One Tree Hill. He has bought weed for the last remaining member of The Wailers but good source material can only take you so far and what Sullivan does best is locate the person at the heart of the story and open up their experience for the reader to relate to. He asks us to try and understand the person and not the situation they are in and to allow them to be restored.
Again, to quote Flannery O’Connor;
Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.
John Jeremiah Sullivan is willing to undergo that effort and asks that his readers do too.
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