It’s February and I’m already breaking my one-entry-per-week pledge. I’ve been reading in a disorganized manner lately. I started the Civil War book, “Battle Cry of Freedom,” and it’s a mammoth book that will probably take a month or two to read. I’ve been supplementing it with other books, including Charles Murray’s “Coming Apart” and Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.” Both are superb and I’m looking forward to writing about them. But the subject of this entry is a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan entitled “Pulphead.”
Much has been made of Sullivan’s Midwestern roots—he is from Ohio River communities in Indiana and Kentucky and indeed, his voice is familiar to someone like me who has lived (somewhat pathetically) exclusively in Ohio. Generally speaking, I like essays like Sullivan’s. He’s a writer who can go anywhere, stand back a step, and ask the question, “What have we here?” Anyone can ask that question, I suppose, but he’s got the keen observational skills to get the right answer. And his best essays are those where he introduces his own perspective or connection to the topic.
By the way, I’ve tried to do something similar on this blog. Most of my entries aren’t just standard reviews or recaps; I try to reflect a little bit about what I’m feeling and thinking while reading the book, or ruminate on how the book has affected me. It’s writing from within, instead of just reporting. I’ve found that when I write something that has meaning and value to me personally, it makes writing so much more enjoyable.
Back to Sullivan. Hands down, the best essay in this collection is the Axl Rose piece. Sullivan gives us a current profile of the former rock star and it is just brilliant. If you read only one of these essays, make it “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose.” Sullivan easily finds a path to connect his own life to that of the Guns N’ Roses lead singer, and it involves humble Indiana roots—a background that may be best described by a Mellencamp lyric. As is common for most thirty-somethings, Guns N’ Roses comprised a few tracks on the soundtrack of my youth and reading this essay transported me back to the 90s, and also to an embarrassing moment when I walked out of my house singing (off-key) the lyrics to “Patience.” Of course a neighbor kid was walking by, and my cool factor dropped, yet again, several levels. Regardless, recalling those songs and thinking about how we thought about Axl back in those days was entertaining. Sullivan memorializes “Patience,” writing about it better than I ever could:
“And I whistle along and wait for that voice, toward the end, when he goes Ooooooo, I need you. OOOOOOOO, I need you. And on the first Ooooooo, he finds this tissue-shredding note. It conjures the image of someone peeling his own scalp back, like the skin of a grape….And on the second OOOOOOO, you picture just a naked glowing green skull that hangs there vibrating gape-mouthed in a prison cell.”
Seriously. Listen to the song again as you read that.
Sullivan returns to Lafayette, Axl’s hometown, and digs up some stories that help us understand his roots a bit better than we did before. They are intriguing, and only serve to show us that we never really knew Axl the person, just the voice and face and, of course, the hip sway. The essay concludes at a recent tour, where Sullivan reviews the concert on the curve. He’s in the presence of Axl, the one who “got away” from Indiana, who made it big and left a mark. His hair is strange and he’s estranged from Slash, but to Sullivan, he’s still Axl. He’s still a badass. God, I loved this essay.
The second best essay involves Sullivan going to a Christian Rock concert in the mountains in an RV for GQ. Terrific writing. We meet characters that are so foreign to me I have a hard time believing that I’m reading non-fiction. Again, Sullivan introduces his own faith experiences into the essay, and the result is a poignant look at modern religion and modern spirituality.
There’s a Michael Jackson piece (way less impressive than the Axl Rose essay), a piece about Sullivan’s brother’s near-death experience, and a piece about tea party protests during the health care debate. Each has a personal context for the author, and I can’t stress enough how much this adds to his writing. These would have been brilliant essays sans any personal connection, but because he’s found a way to bring himself into his writing, it’s just so much more fulfilling for the reader, and I suspect, for Sullivan too.
Don’t miss the essay about “Real World” alumni or the essay when Sullivan’s house was used as a film location for a TV show called “One Tree Hill.” He’s at his best in both of these.
Admittedly, a few of the essays dragged, but it is tough to go 14-0. This is a fantastic collection of original writing, and it was a perfect interruption to the Civil War epic.
One more note, a personal point of privilege, on essays. This month, Cincinnati Magazine published an essay I wrote about voyeurism and online house-hunting. (It’s on newsstands this week.) It’s the first time I’ve been published. I doubt I’ll ever publish a collection of essays, but if I do, you can bet that I’ll cite Sullivan as an influence.
Thanks for reading.