Ordinarily, I take a pass when it comes to American kitsch. Christian rock festivals, aging Southern gentlemen with grabby hands, former contestants of The Real World, Michael Jackson, obscure bluesmen— these subjects are not particularly interesting or comfortable terrain for me. But something about John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay collection Pulphead ushered it past the border of Things I Care Don’t Care to Read About to the land of Things I Do. I am delighted the customs officials let it across, for these are some of the freshest, wittiest, and most heart-enlarging essays I’ve read in awhile.
Many of these essays appeared earlier in GQ, The Paris Review, and Harper’s, though they have been substantially revised for this collection. Sullivan works in many veins at once: memoir, Baudrillardian investigations into pop culture, and a blend of historiography/political topography/American paleology; this variety of subject matters reflects Sullivan’s own wide-ranging and idiosyncratic interests, which altogether creates a portrait of the critic as the sum of many influences. But what I’m most intrigued by here is how Sullivan manages the feat of making us— ok, me— care about these things. Wry, self-aware, and maniacally funny, Sullivan shepherds the skeptical reader through his subject with great sensitivity.
In the strongest essay in the collection, “Upon this Rock,” Sullivan describes his journey to a Christian rock festival called Creation in the hills of Pennsylvania. Originally intended to be a snarky, phoned-in feature for GQ, over the course of the festival the piece becomes something more meaningful. From the moment Sullivan takes off for the festival in a 29-foot RV (there are no vans left “within a hundred miles of Philly”) we are in the realm of the slapstick, but by the close of the essay, we are in the presence of something more holy.
Sullivan trundles in aboard his “windmill with tires” and almost immediately threatens to wipe out a field of peacefully gathered Christian rock fans. He is saved, in extremis, by a curious creature: “It had wide-open eyes and a Chaucerian West Virginia accent and said rapidly that I should ‘JACK THE WILL TO THE ROT’ while applying the brakes.” This is his first introduction to the group of friends who will be his Virgilian guides through Creation–Ritter, Darius, Jake, Bub, Jake’s brother Josh, and Pee Wee. “‘We’re just a bunch of West Virginia guys on fire for Christ,’” they tell Sullivan.
And then just as we’re adjusting to this Christian rock festival, coming to feel quite fond of these square-headed West Virginians, Sullivan turns the tables on us: he himself is a former Evangelical Christian. In a digression mid-way through the essay, he stops to reflect on the rhetorical powers of those who indoctrinate born-again believers, who are prepared to answer any question that can be thrown at them by non-believers. They learn to run rhetorical circles around you until you too believe that Evangelical Christianity is the only way for a right-thinking person to believe. “Everything about Christianity can be justified within the context of Christian belief,” Sullivan writes. “That is, if you accept its terms. Once you do, your belief starts modifying the data (in ways that are themselves defensible), until eventually the data begin to reinforce belief. The precise moment of illogic is hard to isolate and may not exist.”
This in turn provides its own frame for reading these essays. No matter his subject, Sullivan manages to be understanding and respectful of even his most absurdly marginal subjects while always aware to his sophisticated readers’ skepticism. He makes us understand the strange subcultures he explores on their own (self-reinforcing) terms, while finally remaining distant from them. Sullivan’s visit to Creation is, in fact, an allegorical revisiting of his own creation— the set of experiences and influences that made him the writer he is today.
Sullivan’s writing is as convincing as a born-again’s argument, but operates without the air-tight it is all exactly as I have told you conviction. His most convincing tactic is non-conviction. I think this stuff is just as crazy as you do, Sullivan the Shepherd indicates to the reader, and yet there is something about it I find compelling, fascinating, beautiful even. He never presumes we will find his subjects important on their own; rather, he constantly works to show us their own queer complicated truth.
Sullivan is a study in contrasts: a one-time born-again Christian and a liberal-minded critic, a Southerner and a darling of the New York literati, a goofy dude and a sober social conscience. He is, therefore, in an ideal position to explore the shady byways of American identity. His essay on the Tea Party, “American Grotesque,” features just this kind of intellectual magnanimity, even if he does (as he must) eventually come down on “our side” of the fence. “Today is September 12, 2009. We are marching,” he writes. We begin to meet the other marchers: “I want my America back,” reads one of their placards. It isn’t clear for certain whose America the sign refers to until we see another sign of Nancy Pelosi’s enlarged face, into whose open mouth the crowd is tossing Lipton tea bags. “It’s only fair,” Sullivan comments. “Liberals made fun of us because, at first, we didn’t know what ‘tea-bagging’ meant (…) Now we’re turning the joke back on them.” In the very next paragraph, we see a person standing on a garbage can wearing an Obama mask and a little gold crown, sporting “a bright purple pimp’s coat with faux-leopard-skim trim.”
Throughout this first part of the essay, Sullivan casts himself as a reasonably-minded member of an unspecified political rally. As he begins to mention its heroes— “[Glenn] Beck is an entertainer. We love him, but he goes over the top” — we know we’re at a Tea Party gathering, and we’re confused about what we’re doing there. It’s not until after the rally, back at the hotel, that it becomes clear why Sullivan has included himself in the “we” of the lunatic fringes of the Republican Party: he is there with his first cousin, an insurance executive from Kentucky whose politics are radically different from Sullivan’s. He gets into it with his cousin: “Didn’t the crap those people were spewing originate in the e-mail accounts of lobbyists and ‘former CEOs’ and other cynically interested types? Why else would these citizens purport to fear ‘socialized medicine‘ so intensely?” By the end of the essay, Sullivan is wishing his cousin luck and hoping for him to fail.
What’s all this about? Why does Sullivan begin the essay as if he were a card-carrying member of the Tea Party, and then turn the tables this way? The essay deals with a familiar trope of the American south— when politics divide families, pitting brother against brother, cousins versus cousin, how can a family carry on being one? (Apparently, by wishing them the best and hoping for the worst.) The shift in perspective that opens the essay is an important ethical leap Sullivan makes so as to imagine things from his family’s perspective, but also to point out that ethical politics takes more than just belief— it takes interrogation.
But once this family framework has been set up, the essay deepens even further. Sullivan is so committed to de-freakifying his subjects that he writes:
I’d walked away from the town hall and the march and the Tea Party rallies feeling that despite all the crypto-racism and jokes about guns and whatnot, there wasn’t anything to fear, or any more to fear than ever, at any rate not an impending Civil War II. These people reminded you of the ancient Russians who came out with pro-Soviet signs every winter. They were capitalism’s bizarro reflection of that Cold War nostalgia, victorious version. Mainly they were exercising boredom and frustration. It’s not like you couldn’t sympathize with half of what they were saying. Most people who are against government probably have a point. It even seemed sane to hope that some good could come from the sheer event of so many Americans educating themselves about policy decisions, getting interested in creating coherence between those decisions and our ultimate hopes for this country.
This is brave. I’m not sure I’m a big enough person to see reason in the Tea Party’s propositions. When I meet people who believe in them, I nod and smile and don’t get into it, smug in my intellectual superiority. But— to use Sullivan’s phrase— if we are to have any hope in our ultimate hopes for the US, we are going to have to create some kind of respectful dialogue across the spectrum of political views. (That was a very hard sentence to type.)
“American Grotesque” gets pretty dark as it confronts the desperation surrounding the health care debate in the US, but empathy is its most salient characteristic. Sullivan’s empathy is taken to its limits in a more imaginative and experimental essay called “Violence of the Lambs,” about an independent researcher and comparative zoologist called Marcus Livengood who has been accumulating evidence that the animals are about to turn on us humans. Sullivan lists some of the incidents Livengood and his colleagues have compiled in an integrated map. Storks slaughtering chickens. Dolphins “taking [humans] under.” Chimps arming themselves and taking over a water source in Kenya. “Click click click— they just kept coming.” Sullivan travels with Livengood to Kenya to investigate this possible Planet of the Apes-like event. And then, as the piece draws to a close, Sullivan comes clean and admits that Marcus Livengood doesn’t exist at all, that he’s Sullivan’s own invention. The trip to Nairobi? Made up. The reports of animal aggression and manslaughter are true, he points out, but Livengood himself is a fabrication, a way to aggregate information Sullivan himself had been collecting, a mad scientist on whom Sullivan can offload the most outlandish of his ideas. Sullivan has not only proved himself capable of understanding other people’s strange obsessions, but in this essay, he proves that he is not afraid to show us his own.
Sullivan is reliably excellent as a music critic, which is, I believe, his main gig. He approaches Bourdieusian levels of sociological precision in his analysis of Michael Jackson’s and Axl Rose’s respective roles in American culture, and in a discussion of why Christian rock is crap music. I quote at length, because he’s that good:
Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off evangelical Christians. It’s message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility— one the artists embrace— to ‘reach people.’ As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (…) If you think it profoundly sucks, that’s because your priorities are not its priorities; you want to hear something cool and new, it needs to play something proven to please… while praising Jesus Christ (…) Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself.
Pulphead confirms John Jeremiah Sullivan as one of the boldest, hardiest critics writing in America today.
Lauren Elkin has written about books and culture for The Guardian, Bookforum, The Daily Beast, Five Dials, The White Review, and numerous other publications, and has essays forthcoming in n+1 and the Times Literary Supplement. She is the author of the novel Une Année à Venise (Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson) and co-author of The End of Oulipo? An Attempt to Exhaust a Literary Movement (with Scott Esposito, forthcoming from TQC Long Essays and Zero Books). She lives in Paris and London.