Reading a great essay is like seeing a writer's brain working, ideas in motion caught by a flash of lightning. It's like sitting down with a smart college friend for a conversation that leaps and connects, in which you have to only nod and say "wow" from time to time. This is a trick, of course — essays are anything but extemporaneous — but Kentucky native John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection, Pulphead: Essays, has it all. It is thoughtful, electric and alive.
In the first essay, Sullivan goes to Missouri to write about a Christian rock festival. "Christian Rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It's message music for listeners who know the message cold," he writes. The outsider's skepticism is what you might expect in a piece appearing in GQ, as this did. And when Sullivan is befriended by good ol' boys from West Virginia who catch fish and frogs for dinner and share their thoughts about God, well, yes, of course that would happen.
But the story makes a surprising turn when Sullivan reveals his past as an evangelical: He spent three years learning about Jesus and discussing belief. He knows this material from the inside, every biblical quote, and the setting combined with the weight of his personal history eventually becomes too much. "I went back to the trailer and had, as the ladies say where I'm from, a colossal go-to-pieces." Something is at stake, and he's willing to admit it.
Sullivan has roots in Louisville, where he was born; Indiana, where he grew up; and Tennessee. These places inform the essays, which somehow escape being regional. His piece "Mr. Lytle," about his time spent as housemate/caretaker of ninetysomething writer Andrew Lytle, reaches into the very heart of Southern literature. Lytle was a friend of Kentucky native Robert Penn Warren's, a mentor to Flannery O'Connor and was the first, as editor of the Sewanee Review, to publish Cormac McCarthy. Sullivan's admiration is tempered by the recognition of Lytle's faults, and the unfolding layers of his narrative were so good that the story, first published in the Paris Review, won a National Magazine Award in May.
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All the pieces have appeared, albeit in different form, in GQ, the Oxford American, Ecotone and the Paris Review. When Loren Stein took over the Paris Review's editorship this year, he named Sullivan as its first Southern editor. It's a smart move, and the quality of his work for the long-standing literary magazine is unmistakable. "Unnamed Caves" is a widely researched story about Native American cave art in the Southeast that involved crawling through mud-coated tunnels and interviewing burial mound poachers. The meanings of the paintings, some of which are 6,000 years old, seem to him to be impenetrably lost.
Sullivan is a lively explainer: He sparkles when he's didactic. Some of those caves are on the Cumberland Plateau, he explains, which is different from a mountain. "A mountain is when you smash two tectonic plates together and the leading edges rise up into the sky like sumo wrestlers lifting up from the mat," he writes, and geology comes to life.
The pieces are not organized chronologically, which gives this book its own narrative shape, starting with the personal. Moving from the Christian rock retreat and a terrifying story about his brother to "Mr. Lytle" and a short piece written in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Sullivan becomes something more than the name on the book's jacket. He's youngish (37 now); he was well regarded at college until he dropped out; he is inclined toward openness over cynicism; he values family; he's thoughtful and curious. Then "Getting Down to What Is Really Real" shows him performing as glossy magazine writer: It's a funny take on the veterans of MTV's The Real World after the show — stylistically flashy, not too serious. I enjoyed it very much, but for me, it's "Mr. Lytle" and the cave story that stick.
The only real false notes are the musical pieces. Essays on Michael Jackson, Axl Rose and Bunny Wailer, all of which originally ran in GQ, feel off-balance, undercooked.
What makes the other essays so outstanding are Sullivan's unique blend of passion and critical distance. In the unforgettable, unpronounceable story "La-Hwi-Ne-Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist," Constantine Rafinesque — a brilliant, deeply flawed early 19th-century naturalist and professor at Lexington's Transylvania University, where his remains are entombed — is captivating. That's partly because Sullivan steps back to look at how the prevailing ideas of the day undermined his genius. "We do well to draw a lesson of humility from this. It's the human condition to be confused," he writes. "In 500 years there'll be two or three things we believed and went on about at great length with perfect assurance that will seem hilarious." (A portion of the essay can be read online at Bit.ly/jMlaxa.)
That story first appeared in Ecotone, a reminder that small, new literary magazines may be the place to find tremendously terrific writing. And Sullivan is a writer to be read, wherever his work may be found.