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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

John Jeremiah Sullivan - Pulphead

Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America - John Jeremiah Sullivan

I had never read a single feature written by John Jeremiah Sullivan before buying 'Pulphead'. 
To be completely honest with you, despite Mr Sullivan being a regular contributor of excellent papers such as 'The Paris Review' and 'The New York Times' for a number of years, his name was unknown to me til a few months ago. My apologies for that, John Jeremiah. 

It took a score of praising reviews for 'Pulphead' I spotted here (thank you, Kinga) and there (thank you, Guardian and Independent) to make me aware of Mr Sullvan's existence as well as to convince me to purchase this book. Contrary to my recent habits of scouring second hand bookstalls, car boot sales, and charity shops, I've even purchased a brand new paperback copy of 'Pulphead'. 

I had expectations, mind you.
Now, did I fulfil them? 

This collection of essays written by Mr Sullivan over the last years does include amazing stuff.
And yet, I expected something different from 'Pulphead'. 

Before starting to leaf through the very first essay ('Upon This Rock'), I thought that John Jeremiah would have taken his reporting much more seriously than he actually did. Not that I was ready to stumble upon an emulator of David Remnick or Barbara Demick but - hey - after all we're talking about an American journalist in his 30s not of some dadaist essayist. 

Well, 'Upon This Rock' with its semi self-hatred style, its sharp sarcasm and its apparently casual - but actually quite straight to the point - observations opened my eyes. Here I had a heir of gonzo journalism writing in first person narrative and telling me the story of a not successful reporting from a proudly subjective point of view. The problem is that I cannot stand the father of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. I tried to like 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas', but eventually found it dull, lazy and messy.

Was Mr Sullivan going to take me along the same road Mr Thompson pointed at?
Luckily not.

For the following essays of 'Pulphead' kept their first person narrative and dealt quite a lot with their author personal experiences and point of view, but always managed to focus on something or someone in a quite effective -if particular - way. 
Must have been due to John Jeremiah not taking drugs or getting drunk during the writing process. Dunno.

In fact, something quite unexpected suddenly happened. 
And it's this: David Sedaris passed by and said hello.

Let me clarify this. I might be the only reader of 'Pulphead' experiencing this epiphany, but Sullivan's writing gradually reminded me of Sedaris'. 
Now the question is: can an essay on, say, Michael Jackson or AXL Rose resembles a short story about a bisexual neighbour wearing wigs and stalking grannies in a leafy American neighborhood? Yes, it can. 

I mean, we're talking about Michael Jackson and AXL Rose. If you think about that they both belong(ed) - each in his own way - to the same Americana pop culture that Mr Sedaris is so fascinated about. Hadn't they become that successful in the music business, what else could Michael and AXL have done to earn their living? They could have worked as Santa's elves humming Xmas carols in a shopping mall somewhere between California and the Bible Belt from Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve wearing coloured hosies to make their ends meet. (even though I reckon how Jacko would have preferred impersonating Santa himself for obvious reasons).

John Jeremiah Sullivan understood all that. 
And that's why he managed to bring Michael and AXL back to the neighborhood they belong(ed) to writing about seemingly minor episodes of their lives which - believe it or not - capture the essence of both guys, are entertaining and reveal something new on them that is in itself a major accomplishment. 
Sullivan never met Jacko or AXL Rose in person but that doesn't matter. He grew up listening to them, watching them on stage and reading gossip about them. He grew up playing the chords of 'Patience' and dancing to the smooth sexy riff of 'Billie Jean'. He treasured those trivial moments and they made the difference when he had to write about Michael and AXL.

I know there are fifteen essays in 'Pulphead' and I only mentioned three so far. 
But it's when he writes about music and pop culture that Sullivan excels so I don't think I need to dig deeper into this book to convince you that it's worth reading it.

Let me just say that 'Upon This Rock', 'Michael' and 'The Final Comeback of AXL Rose' aside, there are at least a half dozen other amazing pieces of writing here with the uproarious 'Peyton's Place' taking the crown.
'Pulphead' might not be a five stars collection in its entirety, but it's a jolly good read nonetheless