REVIEW: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
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John Jeremiah Sullivan
384 pp / $16
About once a year, you find a book that you can unimpeachably recommend to everyone, like Cloud Atlas or Beat the Reaper. This year, and just in time for holiday gifts and small talk, John Jeremiah Sullivan has given us that book in Pulphead.
A collection of essays and long-form journalism published, over the years, in GQ, The Paris Review, Oxford American, Ecotone, and Harper’s, the book touches on topics as diverse as these publications: Axl Rose’s best dance, the unexplained giant ocean noise known as the Bloop, a tragedy in Sullivan’s family, the Tea Party, and the quintessential Real World bro, among others.
But there’s a common thread connecting the touching personal essays for The Paris Review with the sexy, weed-soaked assignments for GQ: Each is a lesson in generosity.
To be a great magazine journalist, you have to be likeable, both in person and in print. The former because you have to convince strangers to spend long hours with you and share their stories. And you’re starting out at a deficit — everyone knows journalists have a knack for making decent people look stupid. Some journalists overcome this by stealth, like Joan Didion; Sullivan does it by being a good guy.
A lot of the sources Sullivan befriends have been hounded for years, but he wins people over, again and again; reading through, you start to think he must be a super-charming person. He spends time with the notoriously reclusive Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley and the Wailers). As a fact-checker working under Greil Marcus, he has an all-night phone conversation with John Fahey, another reclusive musician who’s willing to just hang out with Sullivan and rap. Even Mike “the Miz” Mizanin, a Real World alum who makes his living by partying with strangers, seems to reach a new kind of comfortable with Sullivan. But this might just be a feature of Sullivan’s likeability in print; reading each of these essays, you feel like you’re just hanging out, too.
Generously, Sullivan honors each of these people’s trust in the written piece. The book is LOL funny, but he never once makes a joke at one of his sources’ expense. He’s fully aware that most journalists do this; as he says of the Real World alumni:
“I wish — for your sakes — that the Miz, Coral, and Melissa had turned out to be more fucked-up, as people. I have a vague sense of owing the reader that.”
But he won’t do it. He’s a total fanboy — he knows more Road Rules trivia than the cast members themselves do — and his goal, in these pieces, is not to tear things down but to share his love for everything he reports on. He reminds you how great a singer Axl Rose is. He makes you like a character from One Tree Hill. Even when he’s writing about a conspiracy theorist — one who believes that a league of evolving animals are coordinating, under the command of the dolphins, to launch a war on humankind — the only person Sullivan really makes fun of is himself, for buying so hard into the evidence.
I’ll resist the urge to go on and on, because I’m sure I’ll spend the next two months doing so to all of my friends and acquaintances.1 Instead, I’ll just recommend it to you as your next recommendable book.
Does your brother need a birthday present? Give him Pulphead. Does your boss want you to recommend a going-away gift for the intern? Pulphead. Are you making small-talk with your high school boyfriend’s girlfriend at your hometown bar on Christmas Eve? You know where to safely steer the conversation.
by John Jeremiah Sullivan
1Did you know that you can reshape a warped vinyl record by placing it between two panes of glass and leaving it in the sun? So you’ll learn in “Unknown Bards.” Did you know that, six weeks after Steve Irwin was killed by the first ever sting-ray attack, a man in Florida was killed in the exact same, deliberate way? It’s in “Violence of the Lambs.” Seriously, you’re going to love this book.
— K. Reed Petty is a writer from maryland. You can follow her on twitter @pettykate.