What do a party-boy reality television star, the 19th-century genius botanist and hoaxster Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, and God have in common? They are all the subject of essays in John Jeremiah Sullivan's wonderful collection, Pulphead.
This connection confers something much more interesting than proximity. Disparate though these subjects are, Sullivan's voice draws them together in a set of essays that reflect and amplify each other. Consisting of pieces published (in some form) in magazines like Harper's and the Paris Review, in the US it has sealed its 37-year-old author's reputation as the pre-eminent non-fiction writer of his generation. It deserves to make his name in the UK too.
There's a clue to the exact nature of that animating link in the title and epigraph, which come from Norman Mailer's resignation letter to Esquire in 1960: "Good-by now, rum friends, and best wishes. You got a good mag (like the pulp-heads say)". Sullivan is blessed with an intimidating intelligence, but he casts himself as pulp-headed consumer, too: his intelligence is applied with an extraordinary, universal empathy that always takes its subjects on their own terms.
Probably the most powerful example comes in the first piece, "Upon this Rock", in which the atheist correspondent visits a Christian music festival. It's an assignment that sounds ripe for thinly-veiled contempt, but in the hands of Sullivan, who reveals his own "Jesus phase" as a teenager, it's a much subtler affair. He gives a group of young North Carolinan believers exactly the same respect as he bestows, later, on the great Southern novelist (and his early mentor) Andrew Lytle, with whom he lived as a 20-year-old until an awkward sexual overture drove them apart. Alive to the possibilities for humour and absurdity in both situations, he nonetheless spends most of his time seeking out the reasons that people are the way they are.
At the end of "Upon this Rock," Sullivan goes into a kind of rapture of his own , prompted by the sight of tens of thousands of believers lighting candles for God; when he comes up for air, he writes: "Knowing it isn't true doesn't mean you would be strong enough to believe it if it were."
This is a penetrating idea, necessitating humility even in someone as smart as he is, and it gets explored again and again. Rafinesque, whose work towards a theory of evolution was only somewhat undermined by his forgery of an American Indian history that corroborated some of his ideas, earns admiration in large part for his commitment. He, too, awakens the author's spirituality with his ideas about the indivisibility of nature and man: "Others talk about God... and I feel we can sit together, that God is one of this thing's masks, or that this thing is God."
In a sense, this sort of generosity is the easy bit: plenty of warm-hearted, curious people are crummy writers. Happily, the prose here is impeccable. Sullivan is not a pyrotechnic stylist like his predecessor as golden boy of American essays, David Foster Wallace. Instead, although his voice is unmistakable – affable, sincere, stepping out of the moment to address the reader – Sullivan is always working to fit it to his subject, so that a piece written upon the death of Michael Jackson has, quite properly, a very different texture to one about Kentucky cave paintings.
Somehow, despite that heady range, it all hangs together. The Jackson piece, which almost incredibly finds a way to great sympathy without glossing over the possibility that the pop genius was also was a child molester, perfectly shows why. Thinking about that famously plastic face, he finds an online mock-up of how it might have looked without the surgery. To most people, that comparison would prompt regret for a lost authenticity; not to Sullivan, who takes authenticity where he finds it, never presumes to know best, and is generous enough to credit us with the same wisdom. "Michael chose his true face," he writes. "What is, is natural."
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