Vintage, £8.99. Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Pulphead, By John Jeremiah Sullivan

From godly zealots to plastic pop idols, the new star of the US essay never stints on empathy

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."

Buy Pulphead from independentbooksdirect.co.uk for £9.49 (RRP £9.99) including postage or call 0843 0600030

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable