Review: Not quite pulp fiction, essays from John Jeremiah Sullivan

Michael Williams

John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote this about visiting Disney World:

“There’s an implication of surrender to something enormous.”

I echo it to him. That’s how I felt reading “Pulphead,” his 2011 collection of essays ranging from visiting America’s largest Christian music festival (“Upon this Rock”) to getting fondled by a mentor (“Mr. Lytle: An Essay”) to life after the Real World (“Getting Down to What is Really Real”). Sullivan’s prose is controlled, tight and unpretentious. Every sentence turns. I made Third Street Bagel patrons uneasy, at least twice, when I began laughing aloud, alone.

“It is wrong to boast, but in the beginning, my plan was perfect.”

The book’s first sentence. Is it an homage to the Creator? Would the rest of the essay, after he rents an ancient RV that smells like a porn shoot, tries to solicit Christian minors on a web forum to carpool, has flashbacks (nondrug variety) at the Creation festival, finds sublime, essential kindness in evangelical backwater, be a metaphor for the magnificent clusterf— God created? I don’t know, but that’s why his writing stuns — each section mystifies and necessitates re-scanning. He’s lucid, but enigmatic.

He has this effect, and I’m not doing it justice here, because it requires submersion into his psyche to come out the other end feeling this way, but it is this: reading him, I feel dumb in a smart way.

Or the reverse. He makes reading about “the Miz,” a former Real World personality turned professional wrestler, feel important, that the world will benefit from knowing his situation, no matter its insignificance or deficit of imagination. Essay-worthy? Sure. Dude’s got a story. Succumb to fascination, here’s the Miz.

There’s a kind of coherence in his topics, but only that. He still leaves you thinking his is the final word, no matter the subject. He writes about blues gurus and gas shortages, Indiana and aging rastafari. And a lot about caves. Nothing is left in a nutshell.

Hate putting it this way, because cliches are career-killers, but I know it to be true: there’s something here for everyone. Refreshingly compassionate obituary for Michael Jackson? Future man versus beast battles for earth domination when the dog-terrorists massacre us? One Tree Hill?

About that.

He’s writing on America— that which distinguishes America from Europe beneath our myths and icons. Much is popular culture, like Axl Rose’s immortal something, but there’s naturalism, hurricane refugees, the Tea Party’s “crypto-racism,” all of Creation.

If, like me, your neurotic tics dwindle after finding humans whose observational skills could be clinically treated, if you discover comfort in knowing others see contradictions, whether dangerous or benign or unexceptional, read “Pulphead.”