Farrar, Straus & Giroux $16 paperback, 384 pages
There's a point in many of the essays in John Jeremiah Sullivan's book "Pulphead" in which the reason for his obsession with whatever it is he's writing about becomes clear. In "Upon This Rock," it's when he hears Petra at a Christian rock festival and flashes back to his time as an evangelical acolyte. In "The Final Comeback of Axl Rose," it's when he connects the Guns N' Roses frontman's flight from the stultifying culture of Indiana to his own. In "Getting Down to What Is Really Real" it's when he realizes MTV's "The Real World" has a psychologist that manipulates the cast members to pump up the drama.
Sullivan has been writing some of the exciting magazine journalism of the last decade, mostly for GQ and also The Paris Review, Harper's and The Oxford American. He's won two National Magazine Awards, one for an article on which his first book, "Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son," was based, and the other, included in "Pulphead," for "Mr. Lytle: An Essay," about his time as live-in caretaker for a legendary English professor. He is 37 and is a star in the world of literary nonfiction, frequently compared to David Foster Wallace and Tom Wolfe.
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. The Axl Rose piece begins "He is from nowhere." One on Michael Jackson uses a question lead: "How do you talk about Michael Jackson unless you talk about Prince Screws?" I don't know, but I'd like to find out. "Feet in Smoke" goes for straightforward horror: "On the morning of April 21, 1995, my elder brother, Worth (short for Ellsworth), put his mouth to a microphone in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky, and in the strict sense of having been 'shocked to death,' was electrocuted."
In "Pulphead," Sullivan regularly inserts himself as a character in the essays. This is surely true to a greater degree than in the original magazine pieces, which have been substantially rewritten for the book. It's fair to say "character" because a writer as talented and careful as Sullivan is fully aware of how much of himself he is presenting, and at what angle. 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." The "Mr. Lytle" piece is exquisitely nuanced and honest, about growing up and growing old. There's a chapter called "Unnamed Caves" in which Sullivan goes into the newly discovered caves of the Cumberland Plateau to see some of the art preserved there. It's a deep obsession of his, one worthy of another book. There's another one called "Violence of the Lambs" that is more problematic because of a twist at the end that wouldn't be fair to reveal but is strictly forbidden, for obvious and compelling reasons, in most mainstream journalism.
Me, I just loved the music writing. I first picked up "Pulphead" and randomly opened to "The Last Wailer," the marvelously reported and written account of Sullivan's visit to Jamaica and Bunny Wailer. "One was intimidated, but not in a way that felt inappropriate," he writes. "That was Bunny Wailer, who taught Bob Marley what harmony was." Elsewhere, Sullivan writes about calling guitarist John Fahey at a welfare hotel in Portland to fact-check an article by Greil Marcus for The Oxford American and falling down the wormhole into deep blues and the old, weird America. Sullivan's take on Michael Jackson made me think of Joe Christmas, the doomed hero of William Faulkner's "Light in August." When he sang "Stairway to Heaven" in his trailer with a bunch of Christian rock fans, one of them said, "Keep it down, man! We don't need everybody thinking this is the sin wagon." Too late.