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Pulphead: Essays (2011)

John Jeremiah Sullivan

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#1 Christian

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 11:35 PM

I learned of this collection of John Jeremiah Sullivan essays late last year from EW's best of year issue, which states:

Southern-born rising star John Jeremiah Sullivan is not a traditional Very Important Essayist, and thank goodness for that. At 37, he's younger than Christopher Hitchens or Malcolm Gladwell, and his voice is much more fantastical, whether he's philosophizing about Michael Jackson's body or riffing on the ease of renting an RV for a Christian-rock festival. To read him is to feel very lucky just to follow him down his rabbit hole of choice.

Emphasis mine, because that description is what made me want to read the book. I've only read the first essay, which is about the author's journey to the Creation festival in a 29-foot RV.

I wish I had liked it more. Maybe I've begun to take this type of journalism for granted, or maybe I'm just getting old (the author is four years my junior), but the essay's outside-looking-in perspective felt like something I'd read before. I didn't learn anything about the foibles of Christians or Christian-rock fans, nor much about the mindset of the author. Until, that is, a nice "twist" of sorts -- the author's personal "born again" testimony and bluntly, if cryptically, stated reasons for leaving that behind, followed by a testament of what he does believe about God. His beliefs seem to be strangely heartfelt, if upsetting in their approach to revelation. I suspect he thinks we'll be impressed by his integrity. I'm not.

That doesn't mean I hated the essay. I may have enjoyed enough of it to keep reading Pulphead. Still, with all of the many accolades the book's received, I figure I'd be more excited.

Hey, I just googled to find out more about the book and discovered that the Creation essay is available online.



#2 Christian

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 10:14 AM

The book's second essay, about the near-death electrocution experience of John's brother, is great.

OK, a bit more googling and I turned up that essay as well. I suppose everything in the book is avaiable online, which means I won't feel too pressured to read the entire collection before it's due back to the library.

See how that works? In the space of one night, I went from "I'm not sure I'll bother with finishing the book" to making a Plan B in case I can't finish with it by the time it's due back. That second essay turned me around.

Edited by Christian, 25 February 2012 - 10:15 AM.


#3 Christian

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Posted 10 March 2012 - 11:20 PM

I'm startled to have finished this book with a couple days to spare in my three-week checkout time frame. I complain that I'm a slow reader, that a book of this length (365 pages) is imposing enough that it usually takes me two months, minimum, to finish. And then something like Pulphead comes along and I devour it (in the relative sense of "devour" -- in relation to my usual reading pace).

Despite my misgivings about the first essay in the collection, much of the other early material in the book is so strong that, as I pressed ahead with the rest of Pulphead, I experienced a leveling off and was tempted to conclude that the book had been frontloaded by the editors. However, the collection's second-to-last essay may be the one I remember best as time goes by. I was fascinated by the piece, and I loved the kicker at the end.

#4 Joel

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Posted 12 March 2012 - 09:48 PM

I haven't managed to finish Pulphead yet -- I got stuck at the essay about the naturalist -- but I have to say I've really enjoyed what I've read so far. I actually love the Christian rock essay (for perhaps obvious reasons) -- it was the first piece of Sullivan's I read and I think he transcends the "Secular Person Surrounded By Christians" genre (which is practiced by lazy alt-weekly writers every couple of years) admirably. I agree that "loss of faith" section feels too vague to make some of the pronouncements about faith pack the weight they might, but overall I love the piece.

Incidentally, I highly recommend Sullivan's first book, Blood Horses, which is about his father, sports writing, and horse racing. I actually assumed he'd stopped writing -- I had been looking for his byline without finding it much the last few years -- so was surprised to see Pulphead released to near-universal acclaim. I'm glad that nonfiction writing like this is around.

Edited by Joel, 12 March 2012 - 09:49 PM.


#5 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 16 April 2012 - 10:00 AM

I just picked this up. I'll start on it this week.

#6 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 25 April 2012 - 01:56 PM

I'm about halfway through with the book now and am highly impressed. In fact, I've immediately added John Jeremiah Sullivan to my short list of young-writers-to-start-paying-close-attention-to (along with Sloane Crosley, Samantha Harvey, David Griffith, and Lauren F. Winner).

Sullivan somehow manages to mix a sense of humor while maintaining the ability to be quite moving at times. This is a fine line many authors are not able to tread. He thinks with depth about what is is writing about and is very humble, in spite of whatever point of view he is coming from, in reaching his conclusions. I'm finding him to be a great story-teller. He engages your attention fully and, as evidenced by his essay on Andrew Lytle, is self-aware of the literary traditions that have shaped his writing style so far.

#7 Christian

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Posted 22 February 2013 - 03:30 PM

This roundup of recent collections from the "new essayists" touches on Pulphead a couple of times.
<p><em>A talented writer such as John Jeremiah Sullivan might, fifty years ago, have tried to explore his complicated feelings about the South, and about race and class in America, by writing fiction, following in the footsteps of Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. Instead he produced a book of essays, called

#8 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 11 March 2014 - 05:31 PM

Sullivan was interviewed in late January where he talked a little about at least one book he is currently still writing:

 

... AT: One of the things you’ve talked about studying for years is your work on a historical non-fiction book. How is that coming along?

 

JJS: Yeah I’ve been working on it since I’ve been in college. It’s this very strange, obscure little wormhole in American history—the Southern frontier in the first half of the 18th century. What they call “the forgotten half century,” this little blind spot in American history when a lot of important things happened, but we have no national memory of it at all.

 

AT: This story, about a German lawyer setting up a utopian community in the American south, then being driven out, sounds so interesting. Is it made more interesting because it’s not talked about?

 

JJS: It is an amazing story apart from what I may bring to it or not bring to it. The material is incredible, and it’s kept me fascinated for 15 years. This man, he really represented the height of the enlightenment at the time. He had studied at Leipzig, one of the best universities in Europe at the time, if not the best. He was a linguist, a lawyer, trained philosophically. But he came to the Carolinas, which is really—it’s a backwater now, it was something else then, a really dangerous place to go. He wanted to establish a city, really. We call it a utopia now, because we think of it that way. He thought of it as a new political entity that he created, and called it “Paradise.”

 

It was multiracial, and there was equality between the sexes there, there was total sexual freedom, there was no private property, this whole socialistic view centuries ahead of it’s time philosophically. Here he is, in 1735: Jefferson hasn’t been born yet, Rousseau hasn’t published anything yet. You’re not supposed to be doing this kind of thing, but he did, and he was hunted for many years by the English and finally captured and died in prison. He had a book on him when he died that of become this kind of lost manuscript of American history, this enlightenment manifesto a full generation before the Declaration of Independence. But it was a declaration of independence. He was a fascinating guy ...