Chapter 16
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Acclaim Across the Pond

John Jeremiah Sullivan wins over yet another audience with the release of his book in the United Kingdom

August 16, 2012 For an essayist whose work has a relatively short shelf life in the pages of various magazines, John Jeremiah Sullivan remarkably continues to win the favor of new audiences. The Sewanee graduate has written for such publications as GQ, Harper’s, and The Paris Review, just to name a few, but now his debut book Pulphead, a collection of essays which has already earned wide praise from critics and readers alike around the country, has been released in the United Kingdom and is being met with nothing less than universal approval.

Take, for example, Sullivan’s recent essay in the British publication Financial Times. Written immediately after the Curiosity Rover landed on Mars, the piece takes the form of a diary in which the writer considers tidal creeks, alligators, The Swiss Family Robinson, and the changing relationship between a father and daughter, among other reflections:

Now, studying the picture of Curiosity’s descent, realising it was the same rover I’d seen in California, the very thing, out there now, came way too close to being out there yourself, and produced a feeling beyond the uncanny, into terror. I can only compare it with looking at the first-ever photographs, those dream-like pictures made by Niécephore Niépce. Same beautiful creepiness.

Other major British publications have taken notice and praised Sullivan’s collection of essays.

The Independent had this to say in a review of Pulphead: “Happily, the prose here is impeccable. Sullivan is not a pyrotechnic stylist like his predecessor as golden boy of American essays, David Foster Wallace. Instead, although his voice is unmistakable—affable, sincere, stepping out of the moment to address the reader—Sullivan is always working to fit it to his subject, so that a piece written upon the death of Michael Jackson has, quite properly, a very different texture to one about Kentucky cave paintings.”

The Guardian had equally high praise for Sullivan’s writing: “[M]y guess is that those of you who like real writing (I know you’re out there) will soon come to love John Jeremiah Sullivan—especially if he turns his talent to writing fiction, which, on the evidence of this collection, would not be too great a stretch. My stateside siblings tell me that he’s already got a foot on the same escalator that took Foster Wallace, Franzen and the gang per aspera ad astra. Meanwhile, various people are calling him the next Tom Wolfe this and the new Hunter S Thompson that. Who knows? I’d say hold off a spell—he’s simply not produced enough assessable work. But I certainly found this collection wonderfully engaging, lucid, intelligent, entertaining, interesting and amusing.”

The Guardian also conducted an interview with Sullivan following the Edinburgh Book Festival, in which Sullivan spoke of his preference for non-fiction over fiction and the caution with which he approaches his new fame.

The Economist also weighed in on Sullivan’s book, noting, “the fact that others have tried to perfect this form before him does not make the recent collection of essays from John Jeremiah Sullivan, ‘Pulphead’, any less extraordinary.”

Irish Times also praised Sullivan’s collection of essays, writing, “Sullivan’s strengths as an essayist are many. There is an intellect capable of digesting facts and currents, and conveying, in conversational tones, what they really tell us; he can do workmanlike journalism and he can do goofy. There’s a laid-back warmth, infused with humour. There is the sense of shared discovery—a kind of you’ll-never-guess-what-Bunny-Wailer-did-next sort of thing—and a refreshing refusal to sneer. There are all those pleasurably spot-on lines (“music that sounded like a rabbit’s heartbeat in the core of your brain”), and there is always—whether he is writing about Native American cave art or Axl Rose’s “package”—a sense of fun.”

All this is not to say, however, that critics have forgotten Sullivan here in the United States. Spectrum Culture recently published a review of Pulphead, and Ann Friedman wrote an essay on Sullivan’s political writing for Harvard’s Nieman Storyboard.

Sullivan also contributed an essay, entitled “How William Faulkner Tackled Race—and Freed the South From Itself” to The New York Times earlier this summer:

“Absalom, Absalom!” partakes of what the critic Irving Howe called “a fearful impressiveness,” the sort that “comes when a writer has driven his vision to an extreme.” It may represent the closest American literature came to producing an analog for “Ulysses,” which influenced it deeply—each in its way is a provincial Modernist novel about a young man trying to awaken from history—and like “Ulysses,” it lives as a book more praised than read, or more esteemed than enjoyed.

Sullivan shows no signs of slowing his pace anytime soon, either. He recently wrote an essay for The New York Times about tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, which has already been met with wide praise. The New York Times even featured a “Behind the Cover Story” piece on Sullivan’s essay. You can also read Sullivan’s essay on Longform‘s website.

[This story was last updated on August 28, 2012]