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Funny and Engaging,
This review is from: Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America (Paperback)
John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead has been universally praised, which is strange, for collections of essays rarely get that much attention. But are they any good? Well, yes, they are, and the book deserves its laudatory notices. In reality, though, these verdicts are given in relief, as Sullivan proves the existence of authentic writers who don't want to jump on the novelist bandwagon (although he will undoubtedly go there). These points, however, shouldn't detract from the success of this book, for the essays are sophisticated and eloquent, funny and engaging, a veritable mishmash of the high and the low.
Whereas Martin Amis, in The Moronic Inferno (1986), came at America with the Englishman's ironic detachment, Sullivan, a proud Southerner, gets right in there with his fellow countrymen (and women). The opening essay, 'Upon This Rock', gives a fair representation of his modus operandi. The piece sees the author go to Creation, a Christian rock festival. It may be an easy target for satire, but Sullivan avoids this pitfall by empathising with the people he meets, people on 'fire for Christ'. That he admits to having had a '"Jesus phase"' himself only authenticates the openness and veracity of his approach: an honest journalist is no longer an oxymoron.
The other articles in this collection follow the autobiographical method. Sullivan, however, doesn't overwork the gonzo element and writes in a variety of different registers. The slangy piece on MTV's The Real World, 'Getting Down to What is Really Real', sees his voice morphing into that of its viewers, whereas the essay on Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, 'La*Hwi*Ne*Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist', explores that strange polymath's career in a scholarly prose. 'Feet In Smoke', a memoir recording his brother's near-death from electrocution, is a touching account of mortality, while the dispatches on Michael Jackson and 'The Final Comeback of Axl Rose' transcend the faults of mere fandom.
Sullivan, then, can easily adapt his language and approach to suit the multifarious subjects under review. Some essays, such as 'Unnamed Caves', are too long; some are too short ('Mr. Lytle: An Essay' could easily become a book). But the imbalance is easily forgiven. Where, though, will he go from here? The essay format is his natural playground, and he's nimbly fused the novelistic flourishes with a blurring of fact and fiction. Will this be enough? Who knows, but it will be interesting to see where he goes next...