[Sullivan] seems to have in abundance the storyteller’s gifts: he is a fierce noticer, is undauntedly curious, is porous to gossip, and has a memory of childlike tenacity. Anecdotes fly off the wheels of his larger narratives ... No decent writer could go wrong with what we imagine to be the heady hideousness of a Christian rock festival, and these West Virginians on fire for Christ are juicy material: Just-So Stories from the unfathomable evangelical jungle, waiting to be written up by the compensated connoisseur once he has returned to civilization. But not only does Sullivan avoid condescension; he admires his new friends, listens to them, and quietly compacts an enormous amount of acquired information into his prose ... the gulf vanishes when Sullivan writes ... Unlike Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion, who bring their famous styles along with them like well-set, just-done hair, Sullivan lets his subjects muss and alter his prose; he works like a novelist ... On the Geoff Dyer-scale, he is a fairly old-fashioned essayist. And, anyway, his talent is beautifully for the real; or, rather, for the real fictions that people make of the real, and which they live by.
A few months ago, the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan published, for all intents and purposes, the perfect magazine piece ... 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 ... 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 ... a collection that shows why Sullivan might be the best magazine writer around.
In January, John Jeremiah Sullivan entered my life like a crashing meteor ... My reaction — and, I now discover, the reaction of many new arrivals at the church of John Jeremiah — was simple and confounded: where had this guy been all our lives ... The subject matter of these essays is wildly various...unified only in the personality of the author, who is by turns curious, waspish, sentimental, maudlin, faux-naif, warm-hearted and urbane ... Despite its pop-culture references and ostensibly banal subject matter, there is something daring, high-minded about his writing ... Sullivan is consistently surprising, not least to himself ... In 'Upon This Rock', the jewel of the collection, both we and the author expect certain things to happen ... What begins as a typical New York magazine assignment — snarky urban writer documents credulous brainwashed hicks — turns into something much stranger, and richer. The effect is devastating.
I began this book reluctantly...but by the end I wanted to hand out copies to all those poor folks I see squirming their way through the squalid prose-dungeons of Fifty Shades. I wanted to launch a new British magazine especially for long-form journalism ... t I...found this collection wonderfully engaging, lucid, intelligent, entertaining, interesting and amusing ... The first pleasure of Pulphead is the subject matter. There is the best essay you will ever read on Michael Jackson and the only essay you'll ever read on Axl Rose ... The second pleasure is the sophistication. So often the clarity of a writer's voice comes at the expense of a subtlety in tone. Not here. The two best pieces of the ensemble – 'Getting Down to What is Really Real' and 'Upon This Rock' – are written with such a well-judged balance of close-up love and objective report that they subverted my prejudices entirely and left me admiring Sullivan's way of admiring ... Sullivan had guided me through these alien worlds in a way that revealed to me their interesting geometries and their raisons d'être. What more can the writer do? ... But the greatest pleasure of all was the writing itself ... Sullivan's love of language, his skill and inventiveness, reminded me afresh of the delight of reading people who can actually write.
...perhaps the best literary journalist writing today ... If anything holds Pulphead together...it's this sense of porousness between culture and reality, between the entertaining and the everyday ... Through tender scrutiny, he finds something fresh to say about over-profiled subjects like Michael Jackson and Axl Rose. He also makes startling, revealing comparison ... Most of all, he consistently mines deeper meanings from his topics ... Sullivan manages to be hilarious without being cruel or cheap ... It all adds up to one of the most honest and humane reflections on faith and doubt you'd ever care to read ... Pulphead adds up to a terrifyingly versatile book. The other thing holding it together, in addition to its pop-cultural awareness, is Sullivan's persona - a highly adaptable, highly rhetorical construct that changes depending on the task ... Sullivan doesn't even bother with a short introduction to this book. Instead, he simply pairs his careful, deliberate observations with a sincere desire to understand. It's literary nonfiction practiced at the highest level.
...wonderful ... Disparate though these subjects are, Sullivan's voice draws them together in a set of essays that reflect and amplify each other ... it has sealed its 37-year-old author's reputation as the pre-eminent non-fiction writer of his generation. It deserves to make his name in the UK too ... Sullivan is blessed with an intimidating intelligence, but he casts himself as pulp-headed consumer, too: his intelligence is applied with an extraordinary, universal empathy that always takes its subjects on their own terms ... In a sense, this sort of generosity is the easy bit: plenty of warm-hearted, curious people are crummy writers. Happily, the prose here is impeccable. Sullivan is not a pyrotechnic stylist like his predecessor as golden boy of American essays, David Foster Wallace. Instead, although his voice is unmistakable – affable, sincere, stepping out of the moment to address the reader – Sullivan is always working to fit it to his subject, so that a piece written upon the death of Michael Jackson has, quite properly, a very different texture to one about Kentucky cave paintings ... Somehow, despite that heady range, it all hangs together ... Sullivan...takes authenticity where he finds it, never presumes to know best, and is generous enough to credit us with the same wisdom.
I HATE John Jeremiah Sullivan. He gets thousands of words...for a feature on Axl Rose. He uses up lots of them on his teenage obsession with Guns N’ Roses ... He follows the band all the way to Bilbao. He doesn’t get the interview with Rose. He dares to submit his copy without any quotes, save for 'Ooooooo, I need you.' The magazine publishes the piece, doubtless big-style. And what do I get? A few hundred to tell you that the book which wraps it up with essays on cave paintings, the Tea Party, reality TV, but mostly music, is terrific ... Compared, with good reason, to David Foster Wallace, JJS uses his bountiful words well, writing unhurriedly with warmth and quiet insight, and resisting the temptation to sneer at soft targets ... Sullivan’s the man for the job, dammit.
Pulphead is a big, fat, frequently exhilarating collection of what in the US is portentously called 'long-form journalism', aka magazine pieces. Books like this are always a hotch-potch, but here the potch is well and truly hotched ... What holds all this stuff together is the author's great curiosity (these pieces are written casually but researched to the nth degree), his warmth of tone and the sense under it of a sinuous intelligence. It's full of good jokes, tiny sharp bits of description, nuggets of gossip. He really knows music, too. You'd think everything that could have been said about Michael Jackson has been, but Sullivan finds ways of making it fresh ... As to the erudition, with Wallace it was literature, maths and grammar. With Sullivan, it's literature, geology and Bible quotes ... Like Wallace, he's fastidious about not trapping his responses behind the glass of irony ... His engagement with religion is a pointer to one of the things that's most refreshing here. Most of the journalistic voices that seem to travel from the US are coastal. Sullivan, who grew up in Kentucky and southern Indiana and went to university in Tennessee, is declaredly a southerner.
About once a year, you find a book that you can unimpeachably recommend to everyone...This year, and just in time for holiday gifts and small talk, John Jeremiah Sullivan has given us that book in Pulphead. ... there’s a common thread connecting the touching personal essays for The Paris Review with the sexy, weed-soaked assignments for GQ: Each is a lesson in generosity ... A lot of the sources Sullivan befriends have been hounded for years, but he wins people over, again and again; reading through, you start to think he must be a super-charming person ... Generously, Sullivan honors each of these people’s trust in the written piece. The book is LOL funny, but he never once makes a joke at one of his sources’ expense ... He’s a total fanboy — he knows more Road Rules trivia than the cast members themselves do — and his goal, in these pieces, is not to tear things down but to share his love for everything he reports on ... I’ll resist the urge to go on and on, because I’m sure I’ll spend the next two months doing so to all of my friends and acquaintances. Instead, I’ll just recommend it to you as your next recommendable book.
It’s a big and sustaining pile of — as I’ve heard it put about certain people’s fried chicken — crunchy goodness ... The essays in Pulphead bounce around, like hail ... What’s impressive about Pulphead is the way these disparate essays cohere into a memoirlike whole. The putty that binds them together is Mr. Sullivan’s steady and unhurried voice ... Like well-made songs, his essays don’t just have strong verses and choruses but bridges, too, unexpected bits that make subtle harmonic connections ... All of this is a way of saying that these essays have split ends and burnt edges. This fact makes you vaguely dread Mr. Sullivan’s inevitable hiring by The New Yorker as a staff writer. You don’t want to see any of the edges buffed away ... There are moments in this book when Mr. Sullivan is a bit pulp-headed, glibly mythopoetical, straining for effect ... Those moments are rare. Most of the essays in Pulphead are haunted, in a far more persuasive way, by what Mr. Sullivan refers to with only slight self-mockery as 'the tragic spell of the South.'
John Jeremiah Sullivan’s first collection, Pulphead has it all. It is thoughtful, electric and alive ... Sullivan is a lively explainer: He sparkles when he’s didactic ... he’s well read and thoughtful and curious ... 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 ... these pieces seem to lack either a critical distance or a necessary passion, landing in a more generic middle ... He brings both passion and critical distance to the unforgettable, unpronounceable story 'La-Hwi-Ne-Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist' The subject, a brilliant, deeply flawed early 19th century naturalist named Rafinesque, is captivating by Sullivan’s account. That’s partly because in addition to telling us about Rafinesque, Sullivan steps back to look at how the prevailing ideas of the day undermined his genius ... Sullivan is a writer to be read, wherever his work may be found.
...wildly interesting ... I wasn’t won over immediately. The opening essay, an account of a trip to a Christian-rock music festival, begins with humor that’s a bit on the stiff side, as if the author were imperfectly channeling Bill Bryson. But as it proceeds, the narrative takes on an awkward and lovely radiance. The essayist choreographs a slow reveal of both himself and the men he meets that ends in a scene of transcendent beauty. Hallelujah—a writer who knows what he’s doing.
What makes John Jeremiah Sullivan – the mellifluously named heir-apparent of American magazine journalism – unusual is that he’s not playing at de haut en bas tourism ... His kinship with people more commonly regarded with suspicion by the bicoastal intelligentsia makes for disarming reading ... Sullivan’s bonhomie, his likeable liking, forms the surface trapping of a grander project: a desire to contextualise modern American culture and social practices within the long parade of history ... On the whole...this is electric fare: a song of praise to the body of America, from someone who dwells right there.
...luminous ... The North Carolina resident...is often confused. So is everyone else. But Sullivan is honest enough to let his confusion live and breathe on the page, where it transforms into curiosity, and, eventually, with a few lucky breaks, into knowledge. Sullivan’s writing couldn’t be less professorial or top-down; he’s a boots-on-the-ground thinker, one who clearly doesn’t write a word until he’s both wandered through a few crowds and sat in silence for a few hours first ... Some of the best and most touching parts of the collection come when Sullivan gets down to brass tacks and describes the things he loves. His taste is unexpected, and wonderfully described ... Pulphead is full of such glimpses into the contours of its author’s mind and, by extension, into the depths of the culture at large. This collection establishes Sullivan is a supremely rare talent...
Stylistically, Sullivan is erudite and with-it without being overly flashy or self-conscious. He appears to have read and listened to everything. His sentences are clean, his dialogue is sharp and his leads usually are excellent ... To what degree the Sullivan in Pulphead matches the real writer is unimportant. What matters is that Sullivan on the page is smart, funny, empathetic, a pop-culture fiend who also can also hang with historians and scientists, a partier who smokes weed with Bunny Wailer, and an observer aware and sensitive enough to note that Mr. Lytle's beautiful cedar coffin 'grew invisible after just a few seconds' when dirt started to fill the grave. Those who enjoy exceptional writing and journalism can find much to like in Pulphead.
JJS, as I have come to think of him, may be the best essayist of his generation ... He does everything I wish I could do as an essayist ... There are problems with Pulphead. JJS’s best subject is himself, and the line goes a little slack sometimes when he’s not in play ... The collection is not as cohesive as it wants to be, which is to say that it’s not cohesive at all, and it shouldn’t pretend to be, even a little. It’s also not published with anything like the gravitas JJS has earned ... The title is too faux-cool (as is the flap copy—in my experience anything billed as 'mind-bending' won’t actually bend your mind). The cover is muddy. And it’s a paperback original. JJS deserves hardcover! ... He’ll get it. He’s not exactly a national secret ... But he’s the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe. Though DFW might be a better comparison, actually, except that JJS isn’t quite as clever as DFW (who is?), and on the plus side, he never makes the mistake of taking himself too seriously. Everything else, yes. Maybe that’s the key to JJS: he’s a man who happens to have been born in trivial times, and he meets a lot of trivial people, but he treats it all so very, very seriously.
...each beautifully crafted essay in John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection Pulphead is a self-contained world. But where the hodgepodge content of a pulp rag leaps from one escapist fantasy to another, Sullivan's masterful essays invite an honest confrontation with reality, especially when considered in light of one another. By highlighting features of American life as diverse as a Christian rock festival in Pennsylvania, ancient caves and their modern-day explorers in Mississippi, the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the King of Pop, Pulphead compels its readers to consider each as an equal sum in the bizarre arithmetic of American identity ... The characters he encounters in his tour of Americana often take on three-dimensional depth with only minimal description. Sullivan can also be devastatingly funny. His account of hauling a 29-foot RV up a steep hill with the help of five West Virginian woodsmen rings with as much absurdity and wit as anything the giants of New Journalism ever put to paper ... make no mistake, he’s as red-hot a writer as they come.
Essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan doesn’t do everything right, but he gets the single most important item exactly correct: He manages to make whatever he’s writing about at that moment sound like the most interesting subject on Earth ... Sullivan’s greatest subject is his native land, the American South, and he finds new ways to talk about subjects that might seem largely played out, such as blues music or the life of Axl Rose ... Sullivan’s greatest strength is writing about music. His essays on, varyingly, Michael Jackson, Rose, and the roots of modern blues are well-structured, thoughtful, and have just the right words to describe exactly what in all of these forms of music is worth preserving. His weakness is politics ... even when Sullivan is hitting a bum note or two, he’s finding new ways to enthrall. There aren’t any boring moments in Pulphead, and Sullivan is as good at conveying his fascination about his subjects as anyone writing essays today. His name deserves to be up there with Chuck Klosterman’s.
Sullivan’s strengths as an essayist are many. There is an intellect capable of digesting facts and currents, and conveying, in conversational tones, what they really tell us; he can do workmanlike journalism and he can do goofy. There’s a laid-back warmth, infused with humour. There is the sense of shared discovery – a kind of you’ll-never-guess-what-Bunny-Wailer-
did-next sort of thing – and a refreshing refusal to sneer ... Music is a passion, and while the essays on Rose, Bunny Wailer, Michael Jackson and the early blues are compelling, the best in the collection are those that are both personally engaged and that explore the question of why the US is the way it is ... If Sullivan has a weakness, it may be the occasional reluctance to shed a certain glibness when doing so could allow something richer to emerge ... But it is virtually impossible not to love this collection. Informed by both gonzo and immersion journalism, the essays are somehow gentler and more modest in their bearing, less self-
involved than what one might expect from long-form journalism written by someone with comic and literary sensibilities. If one can say so, they wear their author’s presence lightly, ferrying the reader along, charming, erudite.
Every word I say or write about John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays, Pulphead, turns instantly to mush. Yes, he’s that good. He has that rare ability to make me care deeply about things that held little or no interest before I picked up the book, including Christian rock festivals, the very real unreality of reality TV, the last surviving Southern Agrarian, Native-American cave paintings, Michael Jackson, country blues, Axl Rose, the Tea Party, and how to kill a frog and cook its legs. Sullivan has a vast range, obviously, but his success comes from something much deeper and subtler ... It addition to...gem-like observations, Sullivan gives us humor ... Sometimes the humor comes with wisdom.
As is usually the case in such collections, some of the pieces are slighter than others, though none seem journalistically dated ... Mostly impressive work from a writer who frequently causes readers to challenge their own perspectives.
The age-old strangeness of American pop culture gets dissected with hilarious and revelatory precision in these scintillating essays ... Sullivan views this landscape with love, horror, and fascination, finding the intricate intellectual substructures underlying the banalities, the graceful in the grotesque, the constellations of meaning that fans discern amid the random twinklings of stars. Sullivan writes an extraordinary prose that's stuffed with off-beat insight gleaned from rapt, appalled observations and suffused with a hang-dog charm. The result is an arresting take on the American imagination.