October 19, 2011

Masterful portraits of modern America

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Like the harrowing tales of swashbuckling pirates and square-jawed detectives in vintage pulp magazines, each beautifully crafted essay in John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection Pulphead is a self-contained world. But where the hodgepodge content of a pulp rag leaps from one escapist fantasy to another, Sullivan's masterful essays invite an honest confrontation with reality, especially when considered in light of one another. By highlighting features of American life as diverse as a Christian rock festival in Pennsylvania, ancient caves and their modern-day explorers in Mississippi, the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the King of Pop, Pulphead compels its readers to consider each as an equal sum in the bizarre arithmetic of American identity.

Much of Sullivan’s magazine work for GQ, Harper's and the Paris Review has found its way into this collection, which is fine because the genius of these essays comes from reading them as constituents of Pulphead's patchwork narrative, not in isolation. After skimming the table of contents, you're not quite sure how, or whether, a somber reflection on the state of the Gulf Coast after Katrina will segue successfully into a meditation on the cult of reality television. But it works somehow, and more often than not it works eerily well; that you'll likely find it easy to supply such transitions for yourself, with only a gentle nudge from Sullivan, is a testament to how extraordinarily nimble his writing is.

This sensitivity is most clearly on display in the portraits Sullivan paints of the people who populate his essays. The characters he encounters in his tour of Americana often take on three-dimensional depth with only minimal description. Sullivan can also be devastatingly funny. His account of hauling a 29-foot RV up a steep hill with the help of five West Virginian woodsmen rings with as much absurdity and wit as anything the giants of New Journalism ever put to paper.

It’s hardly a coincidence, then, that Sullivan begins Pulphead by quoting Norman Mailer. In his resignation letter from Esquire magazine in 1960, Mailer writes, “Good-by now, rum friends, and best wishes. You got a good mag (like the pulp-heads say). . . .” Interesting that Sullivan excludes the second half of the quotation, in which Mailer warns Esquire’s editorial board, “you print nice stuff, but you gotta treat the hot writer right or you lose him like you just lost me.”

Omitting Mailer’s punch line is likely Sullivan’s attempt at humility, but make no mistake, he’s as red-hot a writer as they come.

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