Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Pulphead, Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan

For months, has not shut up to me about John Jeremiah Sullivan's book of essays, Pulphead. Every visit to that site has shoved it in my face: the casual Windows Paint-made script of its cover page, the washed-out, gritty sentimentality of the photograph. Somehow, Amazon’s algorithms, or whatever you call them, had determined that it was the perfect book for me, the one I was destined to meet and fall in love with, the book that would make me happy.

I don't even remember ordering the book itself, but yesterday, it came in the mail, and on the same day I got a notice from the library that it had come in for me after I’d placed a hold notice for it. True story. I don’t remember doing either, but here the book was, so I took a day off from reading George Eliot and started into the first essay, “Upon the Rock," a pretty hysterical account of driving a 29’ RV to a Christian-rock festival in remote Pennsylvania.

It’s a story full of characters—mainly a small, odd group of male concert-goers from West Virginia who spend their time going frog-gigging, antagonizing the festival security guards, and talking about their faith. Because of their gregarious West Virginia goofiness, they come across as easy people to make fun of, and Sullivan does, quoting them to let them make themselves look silly:

“I was born in Louisville,” I said

“Really?” said Jake. “Is that on the Ohio River? . . Well, I know a dude that died who was from Ohio . . .”

When he does this, gets to come across as though he’s not a mean guy, he’s just letting these people speak in their own voices. But he’s choosing which quotations to include, and his choices usually create humor at their expense.

Sullivan comes across as a person of complicated faith here. One interesting passage for me is his recollection of a time he calls “his Jesus phase” in high school, something he remembers when he sees that aging Christian rock band Petra has taken the stage. It’s an interesting story, and it feels more like he’s pondering a subject for a future essay rather than treating it fully here, which is either sloppy writing or an interesting glimpse inside the narrator’s relationship to his subject.

In the end, Sullivan comes away as more in awe than he does bemused. After describing a sense of “sneering machismo” that most American males saunter around with in public places, stadiums, males, etc., he observes the following:

“In the three days I spent at Creation, I saw not one fight, heard not one word spoken in anger, felt at no time even mildly harassed. Yes, they were all of the same race, all believed the same stuff, and weren’t drinking, but there were also one hundred thousand of them.”

I am feeling an urge now to get a Lilly grant so that I can rent an RV and hit festivals all summer and meet people. I should get started on that.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Eric Baus

"Here is how to hand a glass deer a beetle." from "Glass Deer."

Oh, this guy and his poems. The newly released Scared Text is Eric Baus's third book and maybe my favorite and I can't even begin to speak about it. It is full of lines like this, lines that seem to make such perfect sense to themselves. "Oh," I think, "so that's how you hand a glass deer a beetle. I need to remember this."

The poems themselves feel matter of fact, so poised in their delivery, even when they are depicting moments of miniature, impossible violence:
There are several kings in a single fox. They haunt one another's brows. They hunt their brains for a broken stinger. A crown of hornets fleeces their phlox.
from "Hornet Fleece." I like the way "hunt" echoes "haunt" here. It makes me think the voice is mis-hearing or mis-reporting something, but doing it with confidence. That confidence helps make the all the fantastic action here seem plausible and even likely, which is pretty magical.

Baus and I actually went to the same high school, not at the same time, but we had the same teachers, both experienced the passionate maelstrom of Mr. Rusk's English class. How nice to know that our town can give birth to such, I don't know, difference, maybe. It is more than a little inspiring to me.


Some recent purchases

". . . they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under them but among them and they rode at once like something jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing." All the Pretty Horses (30).

As much as I think about re-reading The Savage Detectives, it's All the Pretty Horses that I seem to open up and browse the most. I open it and pretty soon I am reading it out loud, usually some passage like this, with stars in it, glum cowboys nearby. Right now I wonder about the repetition of "thieves" here. Is it awkward? Could he have chosen a different word the second time? Sometimes I like to think that it's evidence that the narrator is trying again, trying to get it right, but that doesn't really fit with the tone of tragic omniscience the narrator usually carries in this book. It's not the voice of a consciousness that wouldn't get it right the first time. But anyway, I'm glad to be back in this book again.