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Named A Best Book of by the New York Times Time Magazine the Boston Globe and Entertainment WeeklyA sharp eyed uniuely humane tour of America's cultural landscape―from high to low to lower than low―by the award winning young star of the literary nonfiction worldIn Pulphead John Jeremiah Sullivan takes us on an exhilarating tour of our popular unpopular and at times completely forgotten culture Simultaneously channeling the gonzo energy of Hunter S Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion Sullivan shows us―with a laidback erudite Thematic strength isn t what you usually find in a book of journalistic essays but apparently Sullivan is drawn to strangeness wherever it rears its head And in this world strangeness is de rigueur These essays wander from a Christian rock festival to a brother of Sullivan who exhibits all sorts of odd behavior after a near electrocution Then there s a near encounter with Guns n Roses Axl Rose a fey old gay man then America s ancient cave dwellers and those who find and sell their artifacts Perhaps the oddest two are one on Jamaica s Rastafarians and another on a naturalist s theory of why animals worldwide seem to be increasingly attacking humans Two pieces on reality shows could very well have been left out their oddness speaks for itselfIt would be easy to treat each of these subjects as caricatures but that isn t Sullivan s angle There s always something a bit confessional in his work he s very rarely cynical and he seems to be at least a little invested in each subject he approaches As such his writing is both expository and personal and there s not a little bit of charm to each It s as if Sullivan wants us to admit to a lot of this strangeness in each of us And that s a refreshing point of view in a literary world replete with postmodernist cynicism

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Pulphead: Essays

Southern charm that's all his own―how we really no really live now In his native Kentucky Sullivan introduces us to Constantine Rafinesue a nineteenth century polymath genius who concocted a dense fantastical prehistory of the New World Back in modern times Sullivan takes us to the Ozarks for a Christian rock festival; to Florida to meet the alumni and straggling refugees of MTV's Real World who've generated their own self perpetuating economy of minor celebrity; and all across the South on the trail of the blues He takes us to Indiana to I devoured this book in two days Based on what I d read beforehand I was expecting a book of pop criticism a la Klosterman Instead what I got was much varied and profound Generally speaking the collection is a secret history of the United States many of the essays walk a line between what can be known and what cannot in our American past For example Sullivan spends an hour in one of the essays trying to decipher the lyrics to a haunting mostly forgotten blues song In another he imagines an encounter between a cave painter thousands of years ago and a cave painting made thousands of years before that The painting is an object of wonder and mystery to this historical would be artist just as his paintings will eventually be for usA whole book of nothing but very clever essays on mainstream American pop culture can end up making the reader himself feel trapped at the carnival By instead turning pop culture The Real World Axl Rose etc into another chapter in an ongoing American story Sullivan elevates both his subject and his own full length debut

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Investigate the formative years of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose and then to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina―and back again as its residents confront the BP oil spill Gradually a unifying narrative emerges a story about this country that we've never heard told this way It's like a fun house hall of mirrors tour Sullivan shows us who we are in ways we've never imagined to be true Of course we don't know whether to laugh or cry when faced with this reflection―it's our inevitable sob guffaws that attest to the power of Sullivan's work In amongst all the serious stuff about going on holiday you have to mix in some fun so when I saw this reviewed I thought it might make a suitable companion on my long planned Deep South Musical Odyssey between Mobile and Austin Specifically I thought it would be good for the flights between London and Houston an antidote to all those government papers and intelligence briefings I usually carry with meSome of Pulphead was particularly apposite given that I was finally bound for New Orleans seven years after my original visit was postponed by Katrina with a chapter about post Katrina New Orleans the dead animals the new camaraderies the stories of near death and of how WWIII nearly breaks out in the ueue for gas an episode which prepared me well for the driving etiuette on I10What s really striking and skilful about much of Sullivan s writing is the way each article slips seamlessly and almost unnoticed away from its supposed subject So the first chapter supposedly about a Christian rock festival is used as a vehicle no pun intended for a cautionary tale regarding the perils of driving oversize RVs Here also is revealed the author s enviable ability to uote the scriptures without believing a word an ability which also comes in useful in a later chapter when he catches a Christian fundamentalist attributing to Marx a mantra actually originating in the BibleIn previous times I have despite his political leanings enjoyed the writings of PJ O Rourke I have shamelessly stolen the joke he uses as epigraph to Republican Party Animal and refer ad nauseam to Holidays In Hell especially that teasing farm animals is the national sport of Spain though I did find his explanation of The Wealth Of Nations rather dull Sullivan it transpires I can enjoy guilt free as in American Grotesue for example he manages to confirm for me all my prejudices about the Tea Partiers with their dog whistle racism superstitious opposition to Obamacare and general antipathy to government usually to their own detriment In fairness I d guess PJ himself would do a job on the TP and possibly has But Sullivan is mostly uite subtle in his put downs applying the judo approach of using his targets own numbskullery to tell its own story Give em enough ropeFour of the standout chapters deal one way or another with the music industry There s a touching chapter in defence of Michael Jackson in which both barrels are levelled at those involved in the Martin Bashir inspired witch hunt against the singer There s an amusing account of how the author succeeded in interviewing just about everybody ever involved in Axl Rose s life except Axl himself The account of his interviews with Bunny Wailer is interesting for the insights into the story of reggae in Jamaica especially those dealing with Bob Marley and chilling for the insights it gives into the politics of the island And he provides an impressive textual analysis of a blues country song as a lead in to an essay on the blues industry as possibly invented by whites which also gives a fresh look at Robert Johnson and his lyrics in a chapter inviting comparisons with Amanda Petrusich s It Still Moves a book examining Americana music which nevertheless manages to spend a whole chapter looking inside the Cracker Barrel restaurant chainSullivan s Epilogue is set in Disney World which is portrayed as little less dystopian than the theme park in Westworld a movie in which Yul Brynner playing a robot gunslinger goes rogue and somehow overriding the park s safety features starts killing people Just like in fact the world s animals will soon start doing if you believe the chapter Violence Of The Lambs HilariousI d almost say there was something for everybody but then I realise the everybody I ve polled here is just me


8 thoughts on “Pulphead: Essays

  1. says:

    In Unknown Bards Sullivan's essay about American Blues music we get this uote from Dean Blackwood of Revenant Records I have always felt like there wasn't enough of a case being made for blues musicians' greatness You've got to have their stuff together to understand the potency of their work The same can be said about John Jeremiah

  2. says:

    Thematic strength isn't what you usually find in a book of journalistic essays but apparently Sullivan is drawn to strangeness wherever it rears its head And in this world strangeness is de rigueur These essays wander fro

  3. says:

    I devoured this book in two days Based on what I'd read beforehand I was expecting a book of pop criticism a la Klosterman Instead what I got was much varied and profound Generally speaking the collection is a secret history of the United States; many of the essays walk a line between what can be known and what cannot in our American past For

  4. says:

    John Jeremiah Sullivan is a talented writer who shows great compassion on subjects not normally shown empathy A

  5. says:

    In amongst all the serious stuff about going on holiday you have to mix in some fun so when I saw this reviewed I thought it might make a suitable companion on my long planned Deep South Musical Odyssey between Mobile and Austin Specifically I thought it would be good for the flights between London and Houston an antidote to all those government papers and intelligence briefings I usually carry with meSome of

  6. says:

    The brilliant writer Edward Docx raved about this book in the weekend press and I ordered it from straightawayI am only 11 pages in an

  7. says:

    Great writing means that you read it whatever it is about thus it transcends genre Not a long read by any standard but worth picking up flicking through stories at will and passing on to someone who would also appreciate Axl Rose being described as someone who looks like they are wearing an Axl Rose mask

  8. says:

    I almost gave it two stars but it's not uite true that I don't like it I don't like most of it but I certainly enjoyed the opening essay The rest I found dull though they would doubtless appeal in each case to some readers