Maybe you’ve heard: it’s not the best time in the world to be a journalist. Sure, Watergate made the profession sexy for a generation or two, but what Watergate gave, the Internet hath taken away. (And wadded into a ball. And hurled into the deep abyss.) The masthead at any major newspaper or magazine today looks like a warped and stunted bonsai version of itself, and good luck finding true news, much less smart writing, among all the shopping advice and fear-mongering “health” reports on those few and shrinking pages. Was anyone shocked by the news this week that starting salaries for reporters lucky enough to land a job at all don’t even ding the $20,000 mark?
And to prove the rule, there’s John Jeremiah Sullivan, a Sewanee grad, who has, despite this dispiriting journalistic context, created for himself what can only be called the best writing job in the whole world. Magazines like GQ and Harper’s and The Paris Review and the Oxford American send him out to report on all manner of subjects high and low: cave paintings on the Cumberland Plateau, the grotesque celebrity afterlife of Real World stars, Christian-rock concerts, the waning days of the last living Fugitive, scientific opinion about the future of the human race. Sullivan does more than merely report on what he finds, and does more than merely tell the story in an outrageously original way that involves a page-to-out-loud-laughter ratio of something like 1:1. He also manages the kind of alchemy that all great writing—whether it’s poetry or prose, fiction or non—ultimately achieves: Sullivan transforms every subject he writes about into himself, and himself into the subject, and somehow the reader, too, gets transformed along the way. You didn’t live in Andrew Lytle’s basement when you were twenty years old, but you’ll feel as though you did when you read Sullivan’s essay about the experience.
No surprise, then, that Pulphead, Sullivan’s new collection of his best magazine writing, is earning rave reviews and the kind of national attention journalists haven’t gotten since Bob Woodward was meeting Deep Throat in a D.C. parking garage. Tomorrow, John Jeremiah Sullivan will give a free public reading at the Nashville Public Library. To get you ready, here’s a cheat sheet to the most significant Pulphead reviews:
“Once in a while there comes a book one wishes could be assigned to the nation’s schoolchildren. Pulphead is that kind of book.” ~a review on Salon
“But what brings this collection together, and will send you stockpiling copies to give as Christmas presents, is Sullivan’s dry, funny voice and his implicit pledge to never stop thinking.” ~a review in The Wilson Quarterly
“Great writing is never passive, and so great reading must follow suit. Throughout Pulphead, Sullivan’s new essay collection, the urge is to press the book right into your face.” ~Q&A in the San Francisco Weekly
“But open John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead and you will discover 14 essays that go down as smoothly as the best fiction. The ideal way to consume these gems is perhaps to have a loved one read them aloud for you. But reading them yourself is a fine substitute.” ~Q&A in The Economist
“JJS took the pop topics about which everything had been written, and flexed this upper register of lyricism and intelligence and cultural acumen—cutting his stories with both obsessive originality and mythic reverence to basically every book ever written and song ever sung. There’s a quality to the research and the reporting and the construction of paragraphs that is rigorous, sometimes depthless-seeming, and yet the work somehow erases itself so that the performance of it feels easy, irresistibly likeable.” ~review in GQ
“This eye for geography and its kaleidoscope of identities brings the reader close to other moments, ones of national confusion surrounding the death of Michael Jackson, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Sullivan frames these events through narration that varies in rhetoric and style, but is consistent in its perspective, personality and empathy.” ~Q&A with PBS NewsHour
“What’s impressive about Pulphead is the way these disparate essays cohere into a memoirlike whole. The putty that binds them together is Mr. Sullivan’s steady and unhurried voice. Reading him, I felt the way Mr. Sullivan does while listening to a Bunny Wailer song called ‘Let Him Go.’ That is, I felt ‘like a puck on an air-hockey table that’s been switched on.’” ~review in The New York Times
“He’s the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe.” ~review in Time magazine
“Sullivan might be the best magazine writer around.” ~review at NPR
“What’s so fresh about Sullivan’s essayistic temperament, on the other hand, is that he runs his nonfictions through a Southern Gothic filter, emphasizing particularly the tragicomic side of the genre and its often overlooked compassion. Throughout the collection, his subjects—dehumanized outliers and the ineffable cultural artifact—are those with histories that adhere like kudzu weed. If there’s an ethos that frames the work, it’s at once an American sense of the grotesque and William Faulkner’s well-known adage from : ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’”~Eric Been, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books
“Mushy book reviews may be a breach of faith, as the late Wilfrid Sheed maintained, but in this case I can’t help myself. Every word I say or write about John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays, Pulphead, turns instantly to mush. Yes, he’s that good. He has that rare ability to make me care deeply about things that held little or no interest before I picked up the book, including Christian rock festivals, the very real unreality of reality TV, the last surviving Southern Agrarian, Native-American cave paintings, Michael Jackson, country blues, Axl Rose, the Tea Party, and how to kill a frog and cook its legs.” ~Bill Morris, writing for The Millions
“Though Pulphead jumps around thematically, the centre of the collection is something that I’ll just call America. For a Canadian reader, it’s almost exotic. Witness Sullivan’s essays on Christian rock, the real Michael Jackson, Tea Partiers, obscure southern folk-blues, and Benjamin Franklin’s stance on socialized medicine. They’re the work of an exceptionally astute essayist, one who’s an expert at distilling his difficult and complicated country into something beautiful.” ~Jennifer Croll, writing in the Vancouver Free Press
“Sullivan not only transcends what we think of as magazine writing, but comes close to replacing the Great American Novel with the Great American Essay.”~Michael Washburn, writing in The Boston Globe
“In a touching piece about the near-death of his brother (who electrocuted himself with a microphone while playing with his band, the Moviegoers, in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky), Sullivan mentions, in passing, ‘Captain Clarence Jones, the fireman and paramedic who brought Worth back to life, strangely with two hundred joules of pure electric shock (and who later responded to my grandmother’s effusive thanks by giving all the credit to the Lord).’ Any reporter can be specific about the two hundred joules. But the detail about Captain Jones giving all the credit to the Lord, while a small thing, suggests a writer interested in human stories, watching, remembering, and sticking around long enough to be generally hospitable to otherness.” ~James Wood, writing in The New Yorker
“Sullivan maintains a brilliant balance between gentle humor and profound insight throughout this standout collection.” ~The Daily Beast
“He has a penchant for oddity, for characters and situations that stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. In this collection Sullivan demonstrates a superb ability to find the absurd in the mundane, and to tease out overlooked details that not only bring his subjects to life but also illuminate the human condition.” ~Sarah Norris’s review for Chapter 16
[This article appeared in a truncated version on November 18, 2011.]
For more updates on Tennessee authors, please visit Chapter 16’s News & Notes page, here.