Deep inside a Tennessee cave, having executed a chimneyed traverse to “pass over the sixty-foot drop in the floor,” John Jeremiah Sullivan turned his light on “[b]ig blobs of black chert,” a “pure form of flint, the gray glassy stone from which most arrowheads are made.” The same ancient people who filled this cave with art would have used chert for weapons and tools, but, Sullivan learns from his guide, there was plenty of flint up above. “A riddle of the place,” he writes, “was why they were coming in here at all.”
The reader might wonder if there’s a wink behind that sentence, if it’s an invitation to see the same riddle in the varied, often strange subjects of Sullivan’s essays. Sullivan, author of the phenomenal Blood Horses, Southern Editor of The Paris Review, and contributor to GQ and Harper’s, has earned a reputation as a guy who nonchalantly goes wherever he feels like. Among Pulphead‘s essays are disquisitions on near-death experience, Axl Rose, Constantine Rafinesque, caves, Bunny Wailer, and the theory that animals are turning against us.
Don’t make too much of the variety. William Hazlitt wrote about sundials and juggling, when not dilating on matters more easily understood as consequential. John McPhee has written magnificently on cattle branding, canoes, and, in 1967, long before every commodity needed its own 500-page panegyric, oranges. Topics like Christian rock, reality TV, Michael Jackson, and the proper way to approach obscure blues music, all addressed in Pulphead, wouldn’t seem exotic except by juxtaposition with one another.
What makes an essayist brilliant isn’t that he’s all over the map, but that he always goes native — and Sullivan always does. Perhaps the best example is his Pushcart Prize-winning essay “Mister Lytle.” In this masterfully compressed bildungsroman, Sullivan tells of his apprenticeship, at twenty, to the aged Andrew Nelson Lytle, a writer of the Southern Agrarian movement that included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren.
The essay begins with Sullivan helping to construct Lytle’s coffin, perhaps the only time literature and “workshopping” ever went harmoniously hand in hand. Living with Lytle, for that is the form Sullivan’s apprenticeship takes, enlarges his perspective. “The manner in which I related to him was essentially anthropological. Taking offense, for instance, to his more or less daily outbursts of racism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism, class snobbery, and what I can only call medieval nostalgia, seemed as absurd as debating these things with a caveman. Shut up and ask him what the cave art means.”
Sullivan recognizes the “self-service and even cynicism” of this approach, which is what places him above the ruck of most reporters. That he doesn’t feel guilty about them makes him better still. Going native doesn’t mean he has to stay there. In any case, the climax of this essay isn’t the unwelcome, confusing, and confused sexual advance that ends his partnership with the old master. It’s an earlier moment. Sullivan steals a look at a page of writing Lytle has been agonizing over, expecting to find something out of The Shining:
The sentence was perfect. In it, he described a memory from his childhood, of a group of people riding in an early automobile, and the driver lost control, and they veered through an open barn door, but by a glory of chance the barn was completely empty, and the doors on the other side stood wide open, too, so that the car passed straight through the barn and back out into the sunlight, by which time the passengers were already laughing and honking and waving their arms at the miracle of their own survival, and Lytle was somehow able, through his prose, to replicate this swift and almost alchemical transformation from horror to joy…. He never wrote any more. But for me it was the key to the year I lived with him. What he could still do, in his weakness, I couldn’t do.
That may have been true of Sullivan at age twenty, but now he can do a great many things with his prose. To give examples would be merely to catalogue, and to spoil surprises. Still, it’s worth mentioning that “Getting Down to What Is Really Real” is not only the last word on reality television but also, in parts, Muscle Milk-snortingly hilarious: “Throwing carbonic acid on our castmates because they used our special cup and then calling our mom to say, in a baby voice, ‘People don’t get me here.’ …This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.”
Or that “Upon This Rock,” about a Christian rock festival, is brutally critical without being condescending and illuminates, through the example of Sullivan’s own youthful experiences with religion, the progression from blind faith to a more fruitful skepticism. Or that Sullivan on the naturalist Rafinesque has written an ode to curiosity, and that Sullivan on his brother’s near-fatal electrocution, on cave painting, and on animal intelligence evokes mysteries of time and consciousness that are difficult to explore without sounding like you’ve tumbled down the world’s biggest bong.
There are just a few duds among these fourteen pieces, and “dud” is a deliberately relative term. Sullivan’s failures make excellent reading. They are useful lessons in investigation and composition, too. “At a Shelter (After Katrina),” for instance, reveals that not even a mind as incandescent as his can stroll into an aftermath, collect an epiphany, and make it work in prose. Yet, if an aftermath must be documented, and it must, you could do worse than Sullivan. Maybe you couldn’t do better.
Katrina, the excesses of the Tea Party (the subject of another essay here) — these would yield, paradoxically, anybody’s palest efforts. It is when Sullivan is doing his own thing, out on weird assignments a minor talent would have to beg just to write on spec, that he dazzles with his curiosity and insight. He’s better at bringing a reader’s interest to bear on his own obsessions than at inhabiting an interest the reader is obligated to share.
Truth is, political anger and sandwich boards and people coming together after disasters are important the way, say, recycling is important. Thinking about them is a dull duty, not a pleasure, and there is no original take. The virtue of Sullivan’s best work is selfishness: He makes you care about whatever fires his passion.
Here, instead of a full exegesis of Pulphead, is a recommendation. Once in a while there comes a book one wishes could be assigned to the nation’s schoolchildren. Pulphead is that kind of book. Perhaps it’s because “Mister Lytle” performs, with penetrating sincerity, the function to which college essays only pretend. It’s because the collection smacks, like David Foster Wallace at his reportorial best, of 3 a.m. bullshit gone right. It’s impossible to imagine a young person reading it without delighted fascination, and then a guilty dawning that his own insights, displayed in a thought balloon, would look like a cartoon log being cut in half. Sullivan inspires his readers because he challenges them. Reading Sullivan at any age is a reminder of what a privilege it is just to think about stuff, about whatever you damn well please — and of how fun.