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Pulphead Essays Summary Of The Book

A few months ago, the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan published, for all intents and purposes, the perfect magazine piece. It was in The New York Times Magazine, and it was about a family trip to Disney World, but it wasn't only about that. In the way of all good magazine features, it was also about things bigger than itself: the history of Disney, and the bizarre grip that most magical of places has on Florida's tax codes and our children's imaginations. But as with all great magazine features, it was also about things smaller than itself; that is, it wasn't only about a trip to Disney World, but it was about John Jeremiah Sullivan and his buddy Trevor smoking pot at Disney World and trying not to get caught. The carefully chosen details of that absurd quest illuminated the world of the story, easing you, the reader, in and closing the door behind you for almost 7,000 wondrous words.

The bad news is that "A Rough Guide to Disney World" does not appear in Sullivan's new essay collection, Pulphead. The good news is that 14 other stories do, and they're all almost as good — which is to say, they're among the liveliest magazine features written by anyone in the past 10 years.

The essays in Pulphead — written for GQ, The Paris Review and other, excellent, smaller magazines — range in subject from Axl Rose to the Southern Agrarian novelist Andrew Nelson Lytle. What they have in common, though, whether low or high of brow, is their author's essential curiosity about the world, his eye for the perfect detail, and his great good humor in revealing both his subjects' and his own foibles.

For Sullivan isn't shy about introducing the "I" into these stories; it becomes clear, in fact, that Sullivan wrote the stories collected in Pulphead because their subjects resonated deeply with him, making the "I" unavoidable. He writes about Axl and Michael Jackson and Bunny Wailer as a fan — a knowledgeable one with tremendous reporting zeal, but a fan nonetheless. He writes about Lytle in the context of having, as a student at Sewanee, lived with the man near the end of the writer's life. (That feature, for The Paris Review, won a National Magazine Award.) And he writes movingly about a Christian-rock festival as someone who spent his high-school years a born-again true believer.

John Jeremiah Sullivan is also the author of Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son. He is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Southern editor of The Paris Review.

John Taylor/Farrar, Straus and Giroux hide caption
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John Taylor/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

John Jeremiah Sullivan is also the author of Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son. He is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Southern editor of The Paris Review.

John Taylor/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

An essay near the end of the book, "Violence of the Lambs," which first appeared in GQ in 2008, delightfully illustrates Sullivan's way with observed detail, as well as his formal inventiveness in the pursuit of a story. An environmental-panic feature about mysterious worldwide increases in wild-animal attacks on humans — monkeys stealing babies, dolphins drowning swimmers, that stingray that killed Steve Irwin — "Violence" revolves around a scientist at a small university in southern Ohio named Marc Livengood.

Sullivan beautifully characterizes Livengood with details that make you feel you know this wild-eyed rabble-rouser, who looks like George Lucas but with "those heavy square glasses that rogue scientists are commanded to wear when they're inducted into the Rogue Scientist Lodge." He's the kind of guy, Sullivan writes, "who likes to say your name at the end of sentences when he talks to you." ("I'm standing where he stood, John.")

We learn a lot of shocking things about Marc Livengood, but Sullivan saves his most outrageous twist until the end. I won't give away the surprise; I'll just say that it calls into question the most fundamental assumptions we've made about Marc Livengood and the way that stories like this one gain their narrative authority. It makes the story bigger and smaller at the same time. It's a terrific coup de grace of storytelling in a collection that shows why Sullivan might be the best magazine writer around.

Amazon Best Books of the  Month, November 2011: What a fresh and daring voice. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a dynamic and gutsy writer, a cross between Flannery O'Connor and a decaffeinated Tom Wolfe, with just the right dash of Hunter S. Thompson. In fourteen essays ranging from an Axl Rose profile to an RV trek to a Christian rock festival to the touching story of his brother's near-death electrocution, Sullivan writes funny, beautiful, and very real sentences. The sum of these stories portrays a real America, including the vast land between the coasts. Staying just this side of cynical, Sullivan displays respect for his subjects, no matter how freakish they may seem (see Axl Rose). Put another way: if Tom Waits wrote essays, they might sound like Pulphead. --Neal Thompson

Exclusive Amazon.com Interview:

Though his stories have appeared for a decade in Harper's, GQ, and other magazines, John Jeremiah Sullivan wasn’t a recognizable name until Pulphead started landing on year-end best-books lists, including Time, the New York Times, and Amazon's Best Books of 2011. The New Yorker’s James Wood compares him to Raymond Carver - "with hints of Emerson and Thoreau." Elsewhere, Sullivan has been called the new Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace, or Hunter S. Thompson, or some combination of all three.

I prefer to think of him more as the Tom Waits of long-form journalism.

Sullivan’s sportswriter father was an early and lasting influence. "The stuff he wrote was so weird, when I go back and look at it. It would almost have to be classified as creative non-fiction," Sullivan told me.

I asked Sullivan if his father encouraged him to become a writer.

"He did the smartest and best thing he could have done for me, which was to take a very coolly distant but encouraging attitude,” he said. “I think he could tell early on that it's what I was going to do, that I wasn't really suited for much else.

After college and a brief “lost period” in Ireland, Sullivan got an internship at The Oxford American magazine and spent a month in Mississippi, living in a brown-carpeted room at the Ole Miss hotel, with hookers conducting their business nearby.

One night, Sullivan told his editor, Marc Smirnoff, about his musician brother’s near-death electrocution from a microphone. Smirnoff suggested he write a story about it, giving Sullivan his first professional byline.

"It was just one of those things where somebody opens the door and steps aside and says, 'Don't f**k it up'," Sullivan said. "And that piece made a lot of cool things happen for me."

Cool things like bylines in Harper's, The Paris Review, and The New York Times Magazine.

Over the next decade he honed his reporting skills, his unique voice (personal not cynical, thoughtful not intellectual), and a particular interest in outliers. I asked: do you look for oddballs, or do they find you? "It probably betrays a weakness for grotesques," he said. "And grotesques give you little angles of insight into human nature. There are things they can't help exposing.

"Sometimes I take pleasure in writing about people who make it hard for you to see their basic humanity. It gives me a very clear task as a writer to insist on it."

Pulphead is filled with hunks of other people’s sometimes misshapen humanity.

"The things that can happen to people... it just blows your mind."

Four more questions for Sullivan:

  • Where do you work? "I used to be one of those people who could write anywhere but for the first time I've become real attached to this corner office in our house that’s become sort of a cocoon. I keep it real disgusting so nobody will ever want to come in here. My daughter will show it to friends, almost like you'd show somebody the dungeon."
  • Who are you reading? "It’s more about staying in constant contact with writing, always being into some writer. That keeps me inspired and it keeps me feeling like, when I sit down to write, it's part of a preexisting and ongoing conversation. It's not the scary void that people talk about of the white page. I do everything I can to cancel out that feeling."
  • You’re a fan of bourbon – can you write drunk? - "Drinking and smoking for me are useful for getting over humps. For cracking things open. But if I try to do it in a sustained way, it gets kind of sloppy and pudding-headed. So I have to introduce it into the process at the right moments … (Bourbon) gives you a little bit of that what-the-f**k feeling."
  • Do you think of yourself as a southern writer? "I'm not an authentic southerner by anyone's definition, and I don't self-identify as a southern writer … I'm interested in regionalism. The fact that I sort of grew up back and forth between the Midwest and the South, it sensitized me to the differences early on … Mainly I’m interested in the psycho-geography of regionalism, and how it gives shape to people's personalities.”

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