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Pulphead: Essays

Southern charm that's all his own―how we really no really live now In his native Kentucky Sullivan introduces us to Constantine Rafinesue 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. 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 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 usA 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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Named A Best Book of by the New York Times Time Magazine the Boston Globe and Entertainment WeeklyA sharp eyed uniuely 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 worldIn 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. In Unknown Bards Sullivan s essay about American Blues music we get this uote 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 SullivanUntil now Sullivan s essays have entered the public sphere only piecemeal through periodicals like G 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 so than if one were to read these essays on their own is a uniuely talented American writer and voiceSullivan s prose is humble and emotional while never self centered or overbearingHis prose is opposite that of a political pundit s a sophist sportscaster or expert social media consultant Our society is uick 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 ualifiers 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 sinceSullivan 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 uestion 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 allSuch self deprecation is uncommon from writers and reuires 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 Velazuez at the height of his technical masterySullivan s technical mastery of his craft his tantalizing crackling prose is what allows the reader to learn not only about the subject of the Sullivan s eye but also about Sullivan himselfWhether 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 lifeThe story of Sullivan s life has a way of turning the reader inward The reader becomes a reader of his or her own storyIn 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 larkIn 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 spiritualitySullivan 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 skySome critics are uick to draw parallels between Sullivan s style and that of David Foster Wallace the patched together disjointed brilliance A apt description of Sullivan is that he is a self assured humble updated and less egotistical Hunter S ThompsonIn 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 askedWe 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 WailerLike 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 sSullivan strikes a tone that is 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 empathySullivan 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 brookIn 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 uestion 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 sentenceSullivan 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 productionSullivan 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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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. In amongst all the serious stuff about going on holiday you have to mix in some fun so when I saw this reviewed I thought it might make a suitable companion on my long planned Deep South Musical Odyssey between Mobile and Austin Specifically I thought it would be good for the flights between London and Houston an antidote to all those government papers and intelligence briefings I usually carry with meSome of Pulphead was particularly apposite given that I was finally bound for New Orleans seven years after my original visit was postponed by Katrina with a chapter about post Katrina New Orleans the dead animals the new camaraderies the stories of near death and of how WWIII nearly breaks out in the ueue for gas an episode which prepared me well for the driving etiuette on I10What s really striking and skilful about much of Sullivan s writing is the way each article slips seamlessly and almost unnoticed away from its supposed subject So the first chapter supposedly about a Christian rock festival is used as a vehicle no pun intended for a cautionary tale regarding the perils of driving oversize RVs Here also is revealed the author s enviable ability to uote the scriptures without believing a word an ability which also comes in useful in a later chapter when he catches a Christian fundamentalist attributing to Marx a mantra actually originating in the BibleIn previous times I have despite his political leanings enjoyed the writings of PJ O Rourke I have shamelessly stolen the joke he uses as epigraph to Republican Party Animal and refer ad nauseam to Holidays In Hell especially that teasing farm animals is the national sport of Spain though I did find his explanation of The Wealth Of Nations rather dull Sullivan it transpires I can enjoy guilt free as in American Grotesue for example he manages to confirm for me all my prejudices about the Tea Partiers with their dog whistle racism superstitious opposition to Obamacare and general antipathy to government usually to their own detriment In fairness I d guess PJ himself would do a job on the TP and possibly has But Sullivan is mostly uite subtle in his put downs applying the judo approach of using his targets own numbskullery to tell its own story Give em enough ropeFour of the standout chapters deal one way or another with the music industry There s a touching chapter in defence of Michael Jackson in which both barrels are levelled at those involved in the Martin Bashir inspired witch hunt against the singer There s an amusing account of how the author succeeded in interviewing just about everybody ever involved in Axl Rose s life except Axl himself The account of his interviews with Bunny Wailer is interesting for the insights into the story of reggae in Jamaica especially those dealing with Bob Marley and chilling for the insights it gives into the politics of the island And he provides an impressive textual analysis of a blues country song as a lead in to an essay on the blues industry as possibly invented by whites which also gives a fresh look at Robert Johnson and his lyrics in a chapter inviting comparisons with Amanda Petrusich s It Still Moves a book examining Americana music which nevertheless manages to spend a whole chapter looking inside the Cracker Barrel restaurant chainSullivan s Epilogue is set in Disney World which is portrayed as little less dystopian than the theme park in Westworld a movie in which Yul Brynner playing a robot gunslinger goes rogue and somehow overriding the park s safety features starts killing people Just like in fact the world s animals will soon start doing if you believe the chapter Violence Of The Lambs HilariousI d almost say there was something for everybody but then I realise the everybody I ve polled here is just me


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8 thoughts on “Pulphead: Essays

  1. says:

    In Unknown Bards, Sullivan's essay about American Blues music, we get this quote from Dean Blackwood of Revenant Records, I have always felt

  2. says:

    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

  3. says:

    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 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 canno

  4. says:

    John Jeremiah Sullivan is a talented writer who shows great compassion on subjects not normally shown empathy A great exampl

  5. says:

    In amongst all the serious stuff about going on holiday, you have to mix in some fun, so when I saw this reviewed I thought it might make a suitable companion on my long planned Deep South Musical Odyssey between Mobile and Austin Specifically I thought it would be good for the flights between London and Houston, an antidote to all those go

  6. says:

    The brilliant writer Edward Docx raved about this book in the weekend press and I ordered it from straightaway.I

  7. says:

    Great writing means that you read it, whatever it is about, thus it transcends genre Not a long read by any standard, but worth picking up, fl

  8. says:

    I almost gave it two stars, but it's not quite true that I don't like it I don't like most of it, but I certainly enjoyed t

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