Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Pulphead: a very short review

One of the books I read this summer was John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead. It's another one of those books that is cheaper in its paperback edition than on the Kindle; I read the paperback edition.

Sullivan is (apparently) a free-lance writer for a number of magazines, and Pulphead is (apparently) one of those collections in which he took various pieces he'd written for various magazines, worked on them some more, and published them as this standalone volume.

So: Upon This Rock is a re-publishing of Sullivan's 2004 article for GQ magazine; The Final Comeback of Axl Rose is another GQ article, this time from 2006. In fact, most of the articles in the book were originally published in GQ, although Unknown Bards is from Harper's and Unnamed Caves was written for The Paris Review.

Sullivan, to generalize, seems to be one of those people who gets started on something, then follows one strand to another, and before you know it he's dug far deeper into the subject than you can possibly imagine doing, and has uncovered things that are far more interesting than you might expect them to be.

For example, given an assignment by Oxford American magazine to simply fact-check a Greil Marcus article about Geeshie Wiley, Sullivan tracks down an eccentric second-hand music dealer named John Fahey, who lives halfway across the country, and interviews him in depths about the lyrical details of Wiley's "Last Kind Words Blues".

Then, nearly six years later, Sullivan comes across a most unusual anthology that Fahey helped produce, called Pre-War Revenants, and is astonished by it, calling it "the charting of a deeply informed aesthetic sensibility." After describing in detail the immense, painstaking work that Fahey and his team did to produce the anthology, Sullivan describes a particular song:

Dual banjos burst forth with a frenetic rag figure, and it seems you're on familiar if excitable ground. But somewhere between the third and fourth measure of the first bar, the second banjo pulls up, as if with a halt leg, and begins putting forward a drone on top of the first, which twangs away for a second as if it hadn't been warned about the immediate mood change. Then the instruments grind down together, the key swerves minor, and without your being able to pinpoint what happened or when, you find yourself in a totally different, darker sphere. The effect is the sonic equivalent of film getting jammed in an old projector, the stuck frame melting, colors bleeding. It all takes place in precisely five seconds. It is unaccountable.

Other articles, in their obsessive-yet-compelling over-the-top way, are equally fascinating. Sullivan tracks down an ancestor of his who was somewhat of an accomplished amateur natural scientist (he worked with Audobon), then discovers that his ancestor was given to inventing research out of whole cloth. Try though he might, Sullivan finds that it's nearly impossible to figure out what of the old work represents legitimate research, and what is fanciful fiction. In the course of his investigations, Sullivan takes up with a modern team of Native American scholars, who carry out their research in unnamed, unmarked, almost unknown caves scattered across the South, thus ending up searching for the heart of his ancestors while squirming through muddy clay in a dark, unknown cave.

Another article details a side-light, just a blip really, that occupied Sullivan on his travels through Mississippi as he returns from researching an article about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Realizing he is nearly out of gas, Sullivan joins a lengthy gas line at one of the few open stations.

I could see how far we had to go and wondered if I had even enough gas to last the line.
As the line inches forward, it crosses an intersection and merges with another line for the same pump, stretching back down the cross street. Stuck halfway through the intersection, Sullivan tries to maneuver his car to avoid blocking an older woman:
It was no act of heroism on my part, but nor was it an act of sneakiness and cheating, which is what the wiry, drunken, super-pissed-off Mississippian who appeared at my window accused me of, in the most furious tones.
Have you ever been wrongly accused of trying to take unfair advantage, when actually you thought you were just trying to be helpful? It can be the most unsettling and baffling experience, leaving you un-tethered and confused about how people come to conclusions about each other.
In the end I rolled up my window and blasted the music, and he melted away. There was no option, for either of us. The gas got me to more gas. But I was thinking, the whole rest of the wait, this is how it would start, the real end of the world. The others in their cars, instead of just staring, would have climbed out and joined him. It would be nobody's fault.

Although Sullivan's work is fascinating and compelling, he seems to have a self-destructive streak that makes me wonder. The essays are all non-fiction, or at least that is how I took them. But, near the end, Sullivan spins a most unlikely tale, extreme and stretching the bounds of plausibility (and for Sullivan, that's saying a fair amount). At the end of the essay, Sullivan confesses that he made it all up. Or does he? Is he pulling our leg? Which parts of his writing are authentic, and which are not? In these days of Jonah Lehrer and James Frey, can the poor reader be blamed for being uncertain about whom to trust, and what is dependable?

When all is said and done, you should give Sullivan a try. You certainly won't find him boring, and I think he'll inspire you to look at the world differently, and go and do a little bit of investigation on your own.

Be skeptical; be cautious; be inclined to err on the side of doubt. But don't let those concerns keep you away from this enjoyable, entertaining, and memorable little book.

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