Pulphead Essays Downloads

I began this book reluctantly – I was deep into Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, which is pretty much the exact opposite – 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. I wanted to go out and round up a good few of the nation's so-called columnists and shame them into admitting that the weekly crap-farragoes that they are pretending to call careers will no longer do. I wanted to say "that's what I'm talking about".

What am I talking about? Pulphead is a collection of essays that appeared in various American magazines written by a journalist in his late 30s, whom almost nobody in Britain will know. But my guess is that those of you who like real writing (I know you're out there) will soon come to love John Jeremiah Sullivan – especially if he turns his talent to writing fiction, which, on the evidence of this collection, would not be too great a stretch. My stateside siblings tell me that he's already got a foot on the same escalator that took Foster Wallace, Franzen and the gang per aspera ad astra. Meanwhile, various people are calling him the next Tom Wolfe this and the new Hunter S Thompson that. Who knows? I'd say hold off a spell – he's simply not produced enough assessable work. But I certainly 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. There's the oddly emotional and disconcerting account of attending a Christian rock music festival entitled Upon This Rock. There's the story of Sullivan's time living with the mad old American writer Andrew Nelson Lytle, who late one night finally got around to touching the young John Jeremiah's genitals. There's a supreme piece of writing – part analysis, part paean – about reality television. There's an account of going to meet Bunny Wailer, the only surviving member of Bob Marley's original band, in Jamaica. There's a disarmingly convivial trip to Disney World. There's a wonderfully illuminating investigation into the lyrics of a pre-second world war blues song – and in particular what the word "kind" once meant – in the sense of "a little more than kin and less than kind". There's a moving and hyper-real account of Sullivan's brother's near death by accidental electrocution, a post-Katrina excursion to the Gulf Coast, some piquant pages on the Tea Party and a piece about the coming war between homo sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom.

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. I went into these chapters belligerently not giving a toss about reality TV and believing the Christian rock music scene to be the single most colossally redundant human phenomenon to date; I came out a changed reader. 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?

Not only do the essays engage, they are also richly informative. I finally understood the title of one of my very favourite songs – I and I by Bob Dylan – as a Rastafarian expression. And I found myself jotting down notes in order to seek out the songs Sullivan cited – one of which, Let Him Go, I am listening to right now. Again: what more can you ask?

But the greatest pleasure of all was the writing itself. There are essayists who rely on their subject to create interest and there are essayists who rely on their style. Sullivan deploys both. In The Last Wailer, he describes the notorious Jamaican drug lord and gangster Christopher Coke (oh, nominative determinism) as a "short, thick, somewhat pan-faced man, who keeps a low profile and always seems to be smiling at an inward joke". In the reality TV essay, he renders Richard Branson as "that weird and whispery mogul-faun, Sir Richard". Elsewhere, "knuckles are cubed with arthritis" and the music in a nightclub is "like a rabbit's heartbeat in the core of your brain". Everywhere, Sullivan's love of language, his skill and inventiveness, reminded me afresh of the delight of reading people who can actually write. And even when he didn't quite pull it off – the interior of a rented mobile home "smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun" – I found myself greatly enjoying the failure.

I had only one reservation. Hovering somewhere in the coulisse of these performances, there seems to be an anxiety about authenticity. This manifests itself as an emphasis on what "actually" happened here, what the reader might check up on there, a habit of breaking out into bald film dialogue-style quotes as if to prove such and such was "really" said. In one story (the weakest), Violence of the Lambs – about the animal-human war – Sullivan adds a coda: "Big parts of this piece I made up…" He seems angry about having to admit to fabrication "because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories" and then writes a second postscript about new "facts" discovered. Sure, there are (adolescent) jokes in play here – about "fact-checking" journalism, about editors, about fabrication, about scientific horror stories – but there's also just straightforward bullshit at the expense of the reader. My take: expect a novel sometime.

“Sullivan seems able to do almost anything, to work in any register, and not just within a single piece but often in the span of a single paragraph…Pulphead is the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again…Sullivan's writing is a bizarrely coherent, novel, and generous pastiche of the biblical, the demotic, the regionally gusty and the erudite.” —New York Times Book Review

“[Pulphead is] a big and sustaining pile of--as I've heard it put about certain people's fried chicken--crunchy goodness . . . 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. Reading him, I felt the way Mr. Sullivan does while listening to a Bunny Wailer song called ‘Let Him Go.' That is, I felt ‘like a puck on an air-hockey table that's been switched on.' Like well-made songs, his essays don't just have strong verses and choruses but bridges, too, unexpected bits that make subtle harmonic connections . . . The book has its grotesques, for sure. But they are genuine and appear here in a way that put me in mind of one of Flannery O'Connor's indelible utterances. ‘Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks,' O'Connor said, 'I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.'” —New York… More…

“Sullivan seems able to do almost anything, to work in any register, and not just within a single piece but often in the span of a single paragraph…Pulphead is the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again…Sullivan's writing is a bizarrely coherent, novel, and generous pastiche of the biblical, the demotic, the regionally gusty and the erudite.” —New York Times Book Review

“[Pulphead is] a big and sustaining pile of--as I've heard it put about certain people's fried chicken--crunchy goodness . . . 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. Reading him, I felt the way Mr. Sullivan does while listening to a Bunny Wailer song called ‘Let Him Go.' That is, I felt ‘like a puck on an air-hockey table that's been switched on.' Like well-made songs, his essays don't just have strong verses and choruses but bridges, too, unexpected bits that make subtle harmonic connections . . . The book has its grotesques, for sure. But they are genuine and appear here in a way that put me in mind of one of Flannery O'Connor's indelible utterances. ‘Whenever I'm asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks,' O'Connor said, 'I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.'” —New York Times

"[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 . . . 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." —James Wood, New Yorker

“Sullivan's essays have won two National Magazine Awards, and here his omnivorous intellect analyzes Michael Jackson, Christian rock, post-Katrina New Orleans, Axl Rose and the obscure 19th century naturalist Constantine Rafinesque. His compulsive honesty and wildly intelligent prose recall the work of American masters of New Journalism like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe.” —Time

“Sullivan's essays stay with you, like good short stories--and like accomplished short fiction, they often will, over time, reveal a fuller meaning . . . Whether he ponders the legacy of a long-dead French scientist or the unlikely cultural trajectory of Christian rock, Sullivan imbues his narrative subjects with a broader urgency reminiscent of other great practitioners of the essay-profile, such as New Yorker writers Joseph Mitchell and A. J. Liebling or Gay Talese during his '60s Esquire heyday . . . [Pulphead] reinforces [Sullivan's] standing as among the best of his generation's essayists.” —Bookforum

“One ascendant talent who deserves to be widely read and encouraged is John Jeremiah Sullivan . . . Pulpheadis one of the most involving collections of essays to appear in many a year.” —Larry McMurtry, Harper's Magazine

“[The essays in Pulphead are] among the liveliest magazine features written by anyone in the past 10 years . . . 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.” —NPR

“Each beautifully crafted essay in John Jeremiah Sullivan's collection Pulphead is a self-contained world…Sullivan's masterful essays invite an honest confrontation with reality, especially when considered in light of one another….Pulphead compels its readers to consider each as an equal sum in the bizarre arithmetic of American identity . . . [Sullivan is] as red-hot a writer as they come.” —BookPage

“The age-old strangeness of American pop culture gets dissected with hilarious and revelatory precision…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.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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