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.

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