Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2011. 365pp)

John Jeremiah Sullivan is a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, and editor of The Paris Review. He is the author of two books: Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter’s Son and Pulphead.

“Greatest Hits”

I recently picked up a couple books containing essays by reputable journalists. The first being Distrust that Particular Flavor by William Gibson, and the second being Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan. What I’ve found difficult about these books is that both are rather like listening to a compilation album, or better yet, a “greatest hits” album by an artist you love. On such an album, there are bound to be songs that you love and songs that you hate. Similarly, there are essays in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead that are pure genius, while others were best to skip over. I’m going to spend time on the pure genius, as I think those essays are reason enough to buy this book.

Creation Fest

Photo by Altus

In my opinion, the best essay in this collection is the first essay, a commentary on Christian culture against a background of hilarity. In this essay, Mr. Sullivan was assigned to cover a festival in Missouri where Christian bands were playing. But, in a penchant for the more elaborate, instead of merely covering the bands, sitting on the side of the stage, and writing a brief report, he decided to recruit some young Christian folk to travel in a RV with him on the way in order to get more honest material. He posted on a chatroom looking for some travel companions:

“I had failed to grasp how ‘youth’ the [Christian rock] phenomenon is. Most of the people hanging out in these chat rooms were teens, and I don’t mean nineteen either, I mean fourteen. Some of them, I was about to learn, were mere tweens. I had just traipsed out onto the World Wide Web and asked a bunch of twelve-year-old Christians if they wanted to come for a ride in my van” (5).

Five pages into his book of essays, and Sullivan had me hooked. Not only is he talking about Creation Fest, a Christian festival I attended long ago, but he’s funny! He also grasped the Christian “rock” phenomenon quite accurately. Christian rock is somewhat of a separate genre from the rest of rock in general. Sullivan describes why.

“A question must be asked is whether a hard-core Christian who turns nineteen and finds he or she can write first-rate songs (someone like Damien Jurado) would never have anything whatsoever to do with Christian rock. Talent tends to come hand in hand with a certain base level of subtlety. And believe it or not, the Christian-rock establishment sometimes expresses a kind of resigned approval of the way groups like U2 or Switchfoot…take quiet pains to distance themselves from any unambiguous Jesus-loving, recognizing that to avoid this is the surest way to connect with the world” (19).

Photo by Robb and Jessie Stankey

I’m a Christian, and I’m a musician, but ask me if I like current Christian bands and I’ll genuinely laugh you out of a room. This kind of statement certainly rings true.

Covering the Christian rock concert marathon that is Creation Festival, Sullivian, listening to the bands suddenly exclaims “Shit, it’s Petra” (those who know of Petra understand the fact that swearing is entirely warranted in this circumstance due to their unnaturally awful sound) and begins to talk about his Christian upbringing in a long exposé. In some of the most honest, beautiful prose discussing one’s personal faith in regards to Christianity, he says that his problem with Christianity is that,

“I love Jesus Christ…He was the most beautiful dude. Forget the Epistles, forget all the bullying stuff that came later. Look at what He said…His breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness. Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what’s fragile and what suffers—there lies sanity. And salvation…once you’ve known Him as a God, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won’t slacken. And one has doubts about one’s doubts” (33).

That’s raw. That’s honest. And, it’s something that I think more people need to think about. Christians have done a lot of stupid things in the name of Christ, to the point that a guy won’t consider himself a Christian because he loves Jesus, not the religion and mantra that’s behind it.

Michael Jackson is Awesome 

Photo by Andy Leddy

Among this book of brilliant essays was a piece about Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson has singlehandedly changed the world of pop (he is, after all, known as the King of Pop) and he gets a bit of a bad rap. He terribly disfigured his face through surgery, did some creepy things, and played in a world of perpetuated childhood. In the essay, Sullivan writes,

“His art will come to depend on his ability to stay in touch with that childlike inner instrument, keeping near enough to himself to heed his own melodic promptings. If you’ve listened to toddlers making up songs, the things they invent are often bafflingly catchy and ingenious. They compose to biorhythms somehow” (112).

The thing that we dislike Michael for so often was also the thing that brought him such beautiful music. It’s true; he may have been a serial child-molester, but then again maybe not. Maybe, Sullivan purports, he just loved children with a similar childlike innocence. Sullivan also muses, that we have perhaps done him an injustice, especially in regard to his looks,

“We have, in any case, a pathology of pathologization in this country, It’s a bourgeois disease, and we do right to call bullshit on it. We moan that Michael changed his face out of self-loathing. He may have loved what he became” (126).

Sullivan succeeds in tugging at the heartstrings of the reader, and forces him or her to come to grips with either former prejudices or doubts about the famous, and perhaps infamous, pop-star that is Michael Jackson.

Sullivan has several other essays that are worth reading as well, one on his time in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina; one on The Real World reality TV series and the reality TV phenomena in general; one on Axl Rose (remember him?); and one on Bunny Wailer (singer and guitarist with Bob Marley). These essays are just a few of the ones I enjoyed in the collection. I highly recommend that you check them out for yourself, as the clarity and honesty he brings to these essays brings out things you wouldn’t think about, or perhaps wouldn’t want to. He tells a story about this world that most of us don’t know, and it’s too honest, raw, and compelling to not read. You just have to find the essays that are the best, as in the end not all of them spoke to me. If all of the essays were as good as the ones I mentioned, I would rate this book much higher. But, Pulphead: Essays is certainly still worth picking up and reading as the good far outweighs the bad.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson
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