Saturday, 25 August 2012

Review: Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan


I love America.

I think John Jeremiah Sullivan does too.

While I, like most people, know very little about love, I am fairly sure it isn't simple. That it's made up of thousands of varieties and eccentricities and a load of stuff that doesn't make a lot of sense.

It is this kind of love that Sullivan applies to his country in this collection of journalistic essays. He writes about: reality TV, animal attacks, Michael Jackson, the Tea Party, Indian cave painting, 19th century naturalists, Christian rock festivals, Axl Rose, One Tree Hill, Hurricane Katrina, the Blues, Disney Land, Bunny Wailer (of Bob Marley & the Wailers fame), comas, cranky old men.

His articles' style varies quite a bit too. At his best, his very very best, as good as it gets for anyone writing this sort of thing, he functions a bit like Louis Theroux. Usually he is a little more meditative, a little more investigative, a little more autobiographical.

There is one essay, the weakest in this collection, that isn't really any of these things. It's about animal attacks. It builds up a conspiracy theory about animals evolving into human killing machines, and unleashing apocalypse. It builds quite well to a ludicrous, nobody-could-be-that-crazy climax. “I'm looking for them [military-trained dolphins] to emerge in some sort of overt leadership capacity before 2010. It's the chimps on land, the dolphins in the seas. We can assume they're working out some kind of mutually intelligible signal system now, most likely on the West African coast.” These words are quoted from a scientist, the human figure that such conspiracy stories need to stay interesting, who, at the end of the essay, Sullivan claims to have invented.

Jasper Johns, Flag (1954-1955), via wikipedia

I felt cheated. I don't like my crazies to be invented. That defeats the point.

I don't mean this maliciously. It isn't about pointing and laughing. It's about treating the insane variety of the world with due respect. This is what so many of the essays here do – especially the astounding first essay about Christian Rock, which is one of the best things I've read in a long while. And instead of the many fascinating, genuine phenomena of America, the animal attack essay gives us what amounts to a rough draft of a short story, pitched somewhere between a hoax episode of Penn and Teller: Bullshit! and something Kurt Vonnegut might have written on a scrap of paper when he was drunk, and later burnt on the fire to keep warm while he wrote Cat's Cradle, losing no sleep over it.

Axl Rose as Predator's wife (via BBC)
It's a shame, because Sullivan is remarkably talented, and it's one of very few missteps. Elsewhere, he is continually stunning. His description of Axl Rose, for example: “To me he looks like he's wearing an Axl Rose mask. He looks like a man I saw eating by himself at a truck stop in Monteagle, Tennessee, at two o'clock in the morning about twelve years ago. He looks increasingly like the albino reggae legend Yellowman. His mane evokes a gathering of strawberry-red intricately braided hempen fibres, the sharply twisted ends of which have been punched, individually, a half inch into his scalp. His chest hair is the color of a new penny. With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster's wife on its home planet.”

Sullivan manages to pull off the remarkable feat of alienating you from your own experience, of making you see your world through somebody else's eyes. I read most of the book on a long-distance coach, and, as I was finally walking home, in the late afternoon sun, I saw something that usually would have seemed banal, but now seemed remarkably absurd. I saw a pretty young girl, blonde, in summer dress, on a grassy verge, on a suburban street, with a little plastic bag, picking up her dog's shit.

To so many people and things – myself now included – this would be a weird scene, but in my little suburban bubble, for so many years it had seemed the most normal thing in the world. I really like the ability to re-see things. I really liked that brief moment in the suburbs.

I think Sullivan would like it, too.

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