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.