SHARE

The essayist, fun­da­men­tally, deals with the real world. While the fic­tionist sits attentive to his own imag­i­nation, the essayist makes his way to the busiest street in Man­hattan to put his ear to the ground. John Jeremiah Sul­livan, in his recent col­lection, “Pulphead: Essays,” demon­strates his lit­erary mastery of pop-culture. He puts his unabashed assortment of tastes on display, dis­cussing Michael Jackson, Axl Rose, the Wailers, his favorite veteran of  MTV’s Real Life, and his unique role in “One Tree Hill.”

Set among these musings on media, Sul­livan also offers stories of his own family and expe­rience. He com­bines obser­vation and per­son­ality to give each essay the lively feeling of an old yarn unrav­eling on a Southern porch.

Sul­livan never for­sakes his lit­erary flair even as he tra­verses what many Hillsdale stu­dents would likely regard as pre­carious ground for the cul­ti­vation of letters.

He tells story after story, sen­sitive to the sig­nif­i­cance hidden in the crackling of a rare vinyl 78 and in RVs parked at Christian rock fes­tivals.

Sul­livan main­tains the old Southern skill that Flannery O’Conner names as the ability to rec­ognize a “freak.” Sul­livan orna­ments that ability with a genuine affinity for those he rec­og­nizes. He care­fully handles the West Vir­ginians he meets at the Christian rock fes­tival, con­veying some­thing of a redemption to them by essay’s end. He makes no bones about his love for “the Miz:” Real World cast member and pro­fes­sional wrestler. In “Pulphead,” John Sul­livan com­bines lit­erary man and superfan, yielding an essayist.

One of “Pulphead”’s high­lights, “Unknown Bards,” doc­u­ments the dank corners of the Delta Blues as it lives on through avid col­lectors and anthol­o­gizers staying in various motel rooms across America. Sul­livan explains the devel­opment of the obscure folk anthology “Pre War Revenants.” He saves barely known and unpro­lific bluesman, Geeshie Wiley, from per­manent anonymity.

This mostly jour­nal­istic enter­prise empha­sizes Sullivan’s keen ear in searching out perfect moments of curiosity and humanity within the greater nar­rative. For example, he invents a segment of dia­logue to com­mem­orate one vinyl collector’s extreme measure of pre­tending to be a pest-control man in long­standing African-American neigh­bor­hoods: “‘Need your house sprayed?’ Nah. ‘Got any weird old records in the attic?’”

Sul­livan shows blues-maniac and drifter, James McKune, imme­di­ately responding to the dis­covery of a rare vinyl 78 by taking a 250-mile bus ride just to hear the single song. Sul­livan explains that Mckune “walked in, sat down, heard the record, and walked back out.”

A final quo­tation from the piece pro­vides an inter­pre­tation for “Pulphead” on the whole. Sul­livan records a phone con­ver­sation with Dean Blackwood, a former head of Revenant Records. Blackwood remarks, “I always felt like there wasn’t enough of a case being made for these folk’s greatness…”

John Sul­livan makes the argument over and over for the greatness of “these folks.” Whether these folks are the West Vir­ginians with their RVs, grow­ingly eccentric Southern men of letters, blues artists and their biggest fans, the Miz, or Hilarie, the actress playing Peyton on “One Tree Hill,” Sul­livan believes the best about his sub­jects. He trusts them for a story.

John Jeremiah Sul­livan is cool. He has great taste. He’s always looking in the right place for a story. Once he gets to that right place, though, he finds the human heart there. Sul­livan tran­scends jour­nalism and creates lit­er­ature. He finds hope and humanity in the real world, not to mention the Real World.

 

 

                aschepps@hillsdale.edu