Gems of insight, writing

It’s summer – almost – so Bob Moyer is off on a road trip on his Harley. But, fortunately, he’s had time to send us a review of a book that offers a more sedentary way to sample what America has to offer.

By Robert Moyer

PULPHEAD. By John Jeremiah Sullivan. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. 369 pages. $16.


Few writers produce sentences that make the reader say that.  John Updike could do it; so can Martin Cruz Smith.  Lucy Grealy comes to mind as well, writers who make sentences we haven’t read before, sentences that stand out, stand up, sum up, shout how good they are.  Sentences that appear in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of 14 essays, like these:

About Miz, a star from MTV’s The Real World:  “To me he look like he’s always looked, like he’s looked since his debut season, back when I erst fell in love with his antics, all bright-eyed and symmetrical-faced, fed on genetically modified corn, with the swollen, hairless torso of the aspiring professional wrestler he happened to be and a smile you could spot as Midwestern American in a blimp shot of a soccer stadium.”

 About a hometown friend of Axl Rose:  “He was nervous, but nervous in the way that any decent person is when you sit down in front of him with a notebook and are basically like ‘I have to make a two-thirty flight.  Can you tell me about the heaviest things in your life?  Order more spinach-‘n-artichoke dip, I can expense it.’ ”

About the little-known 19th-century explorer Rafinesque floating down the Mississippi:  “He felt the vegetable pulse of the continent shuddering down its veins.”

Sullivan has been compared to flashy writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson. He’s got more than stylistic flair, however; he’s got substance. His narrative style smacks of the solid literary journalists like Tracy Kidder and John McPhee.  In fact, McPhee, in the book Literary Journalism aptly described the strength of Sullivan’s writing when he spoke of the “architectronics” of a piece, how if one pays close attention the piece will reveal its structure as you write. Nowhere is this clearer than in the opening story in the book, Upon This Rock, about a three-day Christian rock concert. At first, Sullivan laughs the assignment off.  It’s a simple scenario as he sets it up – liberal journalist shows up, makes fun of good Christians and bad rock, writes a quick piece, goes home, hands in his expenses. On the way to his story, however, he gets caught up with his conscience and some guys who become his cronies, people he tries to make fun of, but ends up having fun with. Experiences lead him to a minor breakdown where he ends up weeping. He soon reveals his own evangelical experience in high school, calling into play the attraction he felt, and the affection he took away.  Basically, Jesus was a cool dude, as he explains it (no footnotes, but some good references) – and so are his buddies

Sullivan’s capacity for engagement is the strength here. He doesn’t submerge so deep that he can’t still see the reader; he rides the surge he gets from his connection to the subject, waving to us with excitement. Sometimes his connection comes easily; he’s a connoisseur of popular culture who can name former contestants on the MTV show The Real World more quickly than a current contestant, the subject of “Getting Down To What Is Really Real.” Familiarity breeds connection, and he uses it to get close to his subject. It even works when he can’t get an interview with Axl Rose of Guns and Roses. He creates a verbal holograph by taking us on a tour of Axl’s hometown in “The Final Comeback Of Axl Rose,” somehow making Axl’s high-pitched yowling logical by giving it a historical perspective. In a masterful piece, he manages to make not just a case but also a place where we can allow Michael Jackson room to be himself, not just a supposed pedophile, in his rumination on “Michael.” He brings focus to blues singers long gone, “Lost Bards,” and reggae singers thought to be gone, “The Last Wailer.”

Even in those stories far from popular attention, he can forge a connection.  In the “Unnamed Caves” of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, filled with prehistoric paintings, he gets us into the darkness where the painters walked, “… constantly finding yourself doing things in just the way they would have done it. You know they had to slide their backs along the rock like this. They had to step there, they had to crouch down here.”  In “La*Hwi*Ne*Ski: Career Of An Eccentric Naturalist,” he reveals that the naturalist of the title lived with his great-great-great-great-great-grandparents at Transylvania College in Kentucky. The naturalist became extremely fat while living there:  “She’s known to have physically forced plum pudding on people.”

The strongest piece is probably the first he wrote, when his brother got electrocuted and found his “Feet in Smoke.”  Touching his mouth to a microphone in band practice, his brother was clinically dead. When revived, he spent months with scrambled brain circuits, not remembering anything or anyone. During that recovery, Sullivan paid close attention, trying to make sense of what didn’t make sense to his brother – but didn’t bother him:  “Like a lot of people, I’d always assumed in a sort of cut-rate Hobbesian way, that the center of the brain, if you could ever find it, would inevitable be a pretty dark place, that whatever is good or beautiful about being human is a result of our struggles against everything innate, against physical nature.  My brother changed my mind about all that.”

That last quote contains all that Sullivan has to offer – intelligence, clarity, insight, intellectual reference, personal engagement and some sharp writing.  Dive into the book anywhere; you’ll come up with a gem about America you just didn’t think about before.