Author John Jeremiah Sullivan. (Harry Taylor )
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 384 pp., $16 paper
Reading a great essay is like seeing a writer's brain working, ideas in motion caught by a flash of lightning. It's like sitting down with a smart college friend for a conversation that jumps and leaps and connects, in which you have to only nod and say "wow" from time to time. This is a trick, of course — essays are anything but extemporaneous — but John Jeremiah Sullivan's first collection, "Pulphead," has it all. It is thoughtful, electric and alive.
In the first essay, Sullivan goes to Missouri to write about a Christian rock festival. "Christian Rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. Its message music for listeners who know the message cold," he writes. The outsider's skepticism is what you might expect in a piece appearing in GQ, as this did in its first incarnation. And when Sullivan is befriended by good ol' boys from West Virginia who catch fish and frogs for dinner and share their thoughts about God, well, yes, of course that would happen.
But the story makes a surprising turn when Sullivan reveals his past as a young evangelical: He spent three years learning about Jesus and discussing belief. He knows this material from the inside, every biblical quote, and the setting combined with the weight of his personal history eventually becomes too much. "I went back to the trailer and had, as the ladies say where I'm from, a colossal go-to-pieces." Something is at stake, and he's willing to admit it.
Sullivan has roots in Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee; these places inform the essays, which somehow escape being regional. His piece "Mr. Lytle," about his time spent as housemate/caretaker of ninetysomething writer Andrew Lytle, reaches into the very heart of Southern literature. Lytle was a friend of Robert Penn Warren's, a mentor to Flannery O'Connor and was the first, as editor of the Sewanee Review, to publish Cormac McCarthy. Sullivan's admiration is tempered by the recognition of Lytle's faults, and the unfolding layers of his narrative were so good that the story, originally published in the Paris Review, won a National Magazine Award in May.
All the pieces have been previously published, albeit in different form, in GQ, the Oxford American, Ecotone and the Paris Review. When Loren Stein took over the Paris Review's editorship this year, he named Sullivan as its first Southern editor. It's a smart move, pulling him in, and the quality of his work for the long-standing literary magazine is unmistakable. "Unnamed Caves" is a widely researched story about Native American cave art in the Southeast that involved crawling through mud-coated tunnels, interviewing burial mound poachers and getting stories from different scientists. The meanings of the paintings, some of which are 6,000 years old, seem to him to be impenetrably lost.
Sullivan is a lively explainer: He sparkles when he's didactic. Some of those caves are on the Cumberland Plateau, he explains, which is different from a mountain. "A mountain is when you smash two tectonic plates together and the leading edges rise up into the sky like sumo wrestlers lifting up from the mat," he writes, and geology comes to life.
The pieces are not organized chronologically, nor does the book make clear where each was first published. That gives this book its own narrative shape, starting with the personal. Moving from the Christian rock retreat and a terrifying story about his brother to "Mr. Lytle" and a short piece written in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Sullivan becomes something more than the name on the book's jacket. He's youngish (37, now); was well regarded at college until he dropped out; he is inclined toward openness over cynicism; he values family; he's well read and thoughtful and curious. Then "Getting Down to What Is Really Real" shows him performing as glossy magazine writer: It's a funny take on the veterans of MTV's "The Real World" after the show — stylistically flashy, not too serious. I enjoyed it very much, but for me, it's "Mr. Lytle" and the cave story that stick.
The only real false notes are the musical pieces. Essays on Michael Jackson, Axl Rose and Bunny Wailer, all of which originally ran in GQ, feel off-balance, undercooked. Writing about music is a natural draw to anyone who grew up loving it and its legendary critics — what other art form could inspire both Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus? — but these pieces seem to lack either a critical distance or a necessary passion, landing in a more generic middle. Even "Unknown Bards," about a few obscure blues singers — obscure as in there are only two known copies of their records — seems familiar, like it's already been written by other people. And Sullivan is better than that.
He brings both passion and critical distance to the unforgettable, unpronounceable story "La-Hwi-Ne-Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist." The subject, a brilliant, deeply flawed early 19th century naturalist named Rafinesque, is captivating by Sullivan's account. That's partly because in addition to telling us about Rafinesque, Sullivan steps back to look at how the prevailing ideas of the day undermined his genius. "We do well to draw a lesson of humility from this. It's the human condition to be confused," he writes. "In five hundred years there'll be two or three things we believed and went on about at great length with perfect assurance that will seem hilarious."
That story first appeared in Ecotone, a reminder that small, new literary magazines may be the place to find tremendously terrific writing. And Sullivan is a writer to be read, wherever his work may be found.