FOR THE last month I have been teaching “creative non-fiction”, that most oxymoronic and capacious of forms, for the University of New Orleans summer school.
As an ice-breaker, I asked the students to bring in an example of their favourite piece of non-fiction prose. One student chose an extract from one of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essays, saying that although he wasn’t her all-time favourite, she was completely fascinated by his work – more specifically that she “didn’t know whether she wanted to make out with him or smash his teeth in”. I can imagine many readers will have similarly conflicted views. Sullivan’s essays tread the fine line between smart-alecky charm and stark revelation, and invest as much intellectual warmth in pop-culture trivia as academic exegesis. Pulphead manages the rare feat of being a collection greater than the sum of its parts. Scintillating though many of the essays are, it is their combination that makes this the stand-out non-fiction collection of the year.
Pulphead is subtitled “Dispatches from the Other Side of America”, and attempting to define what that other is provides the book’s architecture. Sullivan attends a Tea Party rally and a shelter for refugees from Hurricane Katrina. He describes the archaeological digs investigating the “Southern Death Cult” and reminisces about his time as a lodger to the novelist Andrew Lytle, the last of the “Twelve Southerners” and a man to whom “the eighteenth century was just another generation back”. He visits Disney World and Bunny Wailer.
The opening essay establishes the kind of cerebral twist that Sullivan uses to spectacularly disarming effect throughout the collection as a whole. Commissioned by GQ to attend a Christian rock festival, Sullivan starts with a knowing, tongue-in-cheek tone. “But as my breakfast mantra says, I am a professional. And they don’t give out awards for that kind of toe-tap foolishness”. He decides to go on-line and seek out some young adults to tag along with, and the colloquial, sardonic voice invites the reader to collude with him (“among the Jesusy, there’s plenty who are super f’d up”). Not realising that the average age of these young people is closer to ten than 20, he’s soon being denounced as a “creepy petifile”. When he does finally get to Creation in Pennsylvania, he falls in with some guys from West Virginia and it seems as if his stated objective (“Somehow I knew we’d grow to like and pity one another”) seems to be within reach. Sullivan plays up the knowing, ironic distance, both by referring to the commissioning magazine as Gentleman’s Quarterly rather than GQ and by giving the reader a little cadenza on the surreal nature of Christian rock, where he concludes it is the only musical genre to have “excellence-proofed itself”. All this is effectively a lure, subtly positioning the reader and author as like-minded sophisticates, a set-up for the sucker-punch.
Sullivan and the West Virginians head down to the main stage. “The straw slipped from my mouth. “Oh shit, it’s Petra”. With a deft gear change, Sullivan takes the reader back to 1988 when he was an active, Evangelical proselytiser.
This swerve, from slightly arch to suddenly poignant, is beautifully accomplished. Sullivan confesses “one has doubts about one’s doubts” (the switch into the impersonal effectively conveys the almost brittle carapace around his lost faith). It means that there is a genuine emotional and intellectual context to what occurs thereafter: a man falls dead from a heart-attack, and Sullivan finds a genuine bond with the Virginians. He has, “as the ladies say where I come from, a colossal go-to-pieces” (again, with the ever-so-slightly knowing tone making the self-consciousness all the more acute). The dramatic effect is startling. Darius, the West Virginian, tells him “Put in there that we love God… You can say we’re crazy, but say that we love God”. Sullivan reprises it this way: on seeing the vast crowds “Sure I thought about Nuremberg. But mostly I thought about Darius, Jake, Josh, Bub, Ritter, and Pee Wee, whom I doubted I’d ever see again, whom I’d come to love, and who loved God – for it’s true, I would have said that even if Darius hadn’t asked me to, it may be the truest thing I will have written here: they were crazy, and they loved God – and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that, which I never was capable of”.
The emotional dynamic set up in the first essay has a profound effect on later pieces: when Sullivan writes about his brother’s near death through electrocution; when he wrestles with how reality TV appropriated reality itself; and most astonishingly in a long piece on Michael Jackson. Sullivan doesn’t flinch from dealing with the most problematic parts of the whole tragedy, and it is significantly open-minded that he can ask if there is “a nondismissible chance that Michael was some kind of martyr”. As soon as you are attuned to it, Sullivan’s Biblical quotations become a rhythm throughout the volume.
There is an understated apocalyptic element to some of the essays. The end of the reportage about Hurricane Katrina is haunting: after being confronted by an irate man in a gas queue, Sullivan writes “this is how it would start, the real end of the world. The others in their cars, instead of just staring, would have climbed out and joined him. It would be nobody’s fault”.
There is certainly something naive and chiliastic about the Tea Party march, where Sullivan sets aside some of the irony in favour of righteous indignation. But the peach of the book is perhaps the oddest article, a long meditation on the idea that animals have started to turn on humanity (it begins with Steve Irwin’s death by ray, a bizarrely un-isolated incident). Sullivan marshals a terrifying number of facts, where animals have developed unusual behaviours against each other and humans.
The sentence with the most chutzpah I’ve read all year is in “Violence of the Lambs”: “elephants on the African savanna have been raping rhinoceroses, something which is evidently just as startling to zoologists as to the layperson”. It is an eerily convincing performance.
Almost every one of these essays is re-readable. In part I re-read them just because they are so nimble and affecting, and in part to try to understand just how he achieves the effects he does. In Britain, the essay has become something of an endangered species, and I can only hope that Sullivan inspires writers here to produce works of such clarity, wit and honesty.
• John Jeremiah Sullivan will be at the Edinburgh book festival on 18 August
by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Vintage, 396pp, £9.99
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east