Essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan doesn’t do everything right, but he gets the single most important item exactly correct: He manages to make whatever he’s writing about at that moment sound like the most interesting subject on Earth, inviting readers to want to know as much as possible, then showing a path through the large amounts of fascinating information he’s collected. He’s as comfortable writing personal stories about himself as writing about pop culture, and he’s as comfortable talking about modern politics as American history.
His new collection, Pulphead, primarily serves to assemble much of his great magazine work from the last decade in one place. (Sullivan, while not a household name, is well-known within the magazine industry, where he’s already won two awards for his writing.) Though the book is loosely organized, it hops between subjects easily and deftly, springing from a first-person account of a Christian-music festival to a long—but never dry—biography of a largely forgotten American naturalist who invented his own language for long-dead, mysterious Native Americans, and tried to pass it off as the genuine article.
Sullivan’s greatest subject is his native land, the American South, and he finds new ways to talk about subjects that might seem largely played out, such as blues music or the life of Axl Rose (who grew up in similar circumstances to Sullivan, who makes much of the tenuous connections between the two). His descriptions of the people and places he encounters while traveling throughout his home territory are spot-on and filled with tiny details that say more than a longer description.
Pulphead’s highpoints hit at seemingly random intervals; there’s no one subject Sullivan always knocks out of the park. The book’s opening piece, “Upon This Rock,” is by turns funny and moving, as Sullivan’s trip to the country’s largest Christian-music festival causes him to reminisce about his own religious past, and reflect on why some people find belief so easy and others find it so hard. (He also offers the shortest, most accurate withering deconstruction of Christian rock penned in quite some time.) In “Unnamed Caves,” Sullivan wriggles into just-discovered passages in the Cumberland Gap to gawk at cave art painted millennia ago, by people we know shockingly little about, people whose historical records our direct ancestors wiped from the Earth. And in still another essay, Sullivan opens up his home to the producers of One Tree Hill and is surprised when the filming location becomes a hotspot for fans of the program.
Sullivan’s greatest strength is writing about music. His essays on, varyingly, Michael Jackson, Rose, and the roots of modern blues are well-structured, thoughtful, and have just the right words to describe exactly what in all of these forms of music is worth preserving. His weakness is politics, as in “American Grotesque,” which talks around the Tea Party movement of 2009, the battle over the health-care bill, and the death of a census worker without ever really zeroing in on anything in particular.
But even when Sullivan is hitting a bum note or two, he’s finding new ways to enthrall. There aren’t any boring moments in Pulphead, and Sullivan is as good at conveying his fascination about his subjects as anyone writing essays today. His name deserves to be up there with Chuck Klosterman’s.