Book Review - John Jeremiah Sullivan sees the world anew in Pulphead

The essayist explores America through his generous lens

A collection of essays that includes selections on Michael Jackson, Axl Rose, "Real World" cast members, and a Christian rock festival, among other subjects, isn't supposed to be taken capital-S seriously. Pop culture isn't supposed to overlap with "serious art" or "important nonfiction." Since the bulk of the essays in John Jeremiah Sullivan's Pulphead were previously published in GQ — a magazine that (if you're not paying close attention) could be confused for a book-length, glossy advertisement for cologne and automobiles — you can be forgiven the notion that you should pass over what is this year's best collection of magazine writing.

Sullivan's writerly gifts are many: He has a natural's skill with clean sentences, an artist's eye for resonant images, an architect's patience with structure. He is a good writer in the craftsman model. Yet, the crucial quality to these essays is something distinct from word choice and note taking: earnest humanity. At least, the version of Sullivan put forth by himself in this uniformly first-person collection is a recognizably good human being. He is appreciative of companionship with backwoods Christians, uncondescending to a "Real World" bro, generously sympathetic to Michael Jackson, and conveys an open, unencumbered interest to all of his subjects. Which is not to say that Sullivan simply makes his subjects look good. To the contrary, he defamiliarizes them, gracefully stripping away the reader's preconceptions of his subjects, letting them be seen anew.

This is no small task. How does one take Michael Jackson, one of the most looked at, adored, ogled, judged figures in history, and let him be seen fresh? It is a balancing act of enormous proportions, deeply in touch with Jackson's cultural context and artistic practice. When Sullivan writes, "We have, in any case, a pathology of pathologization in this country. It's a bourgeois disease, and we do right to call bullshit on it. We moan that Michael changed his face out of self-loathing. He may have loved what he became," the essay has actually earned that hard-to-stomach assertion.

Reading Sullivan's work, we are almost always in mind of his generous presence. His enthusiasm for his subjects is unwavering. "It had long been a dream of mine to meet Bunny Wailer — a pipe dream, sometimes a literal one in the sense that I dreamed it while holding a pipe," he writes in one essay. He says his claim to be a "'hard-core fan' of The Real World," is "dubious but sincere." No matter the degree of his enthusiasm, though, Sullivan carefully constructs a distance from his subject. In the essay about a Christian rock festival, he waits until halfway through to reveal his own past as a teenage born-again type but maintains an observational perch even while recalling such emotional memories. He asks the reader, "Doesn't the fact that I can't write about my old friends without an apologetic tone suggest that I was never one of them?" The answer is yes.

Sullivan has a sharp eye for moments when commercial success intersects with artistic greatness. What he doesn't quite emphasize is the resonance that he has with his own work: elevating the commercial magazine essay to serious art. Like his subjects, he's putting on a performance. Taking in the whole of Pulphead, outside of the cologne adverts and sexy photo spreads, we get to see it anew.

Pulphead by John Jeremiah Smith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16. 369 pp.

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