With healthy doses of Axl Rose and methamphetamines, two new collections, from journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan and crime fiction writer Frank Bill, call forth the power of place and personal history in the Shallow South.
Axl Rose makes it out, escapes. He spends his youth stealing televisions, brawling and losing fistfights, assaulting the occasional neighborhood mom. Then—fiery red mane presumably flowing behind him—he boogies. “Kiss my ass, Lafayette,” he’s rumored to spray paint on the street the night he flees his hometown for good. “I’m out of here.”
Twenty years after Ax takes flight, journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan— JJS to his growing legion of adoring fans—spends a few days poking around the Hoosier State, digging up old police reports and childhood friends. In a 2006 essay that first runs in GQ and now appears alongside thirteen others in Pulphead, Sullivan concludes: “He is from nowhere…Given the relevant maps and a pointer, I know I could convince even the most exacting minds that when the vast and blood-soaked jigsaw puzzle that is this country’s regional scheme coalesced into more or less its present configuration after the Civil War, somebody dropped a piece, which left a void, and they called the void ‘central Indiana.’ I’m not trying to say there’s not there there. I’m trying to say there’s no there.”
An inane lede, perhaps, from any other GQ writer, parachuting in from New York, surveying the bad and worst of the local color, and then beating hell back to Brooklyn. As Sullivan notes in a second essay, about the 2009 halcyon days of the Tea Party, when a Kentucky trooper sees your out-of-state rental plates and says, “Come on back, now,” what he means is, “I know you never will,” and also, “And I’m glad, because you’re almost certainly an opportunistic reverse-provincial clown who’ll go back to the office and try to make me look as stupid and scary as possible in what you write.” But JJS is a native son, born just across the Ohio River in Louisville, brought up in a “small river town” in southern Indiana. He chronicles the Shallow South less like an urbane, Yankee anthropologist trying to decode the natives’ rituals than a longtime-gone journeyman trying to recover his roots. He shows us what nowhere looks like.
Sullivan’s essays move, often effortlessly, between the reported and the remembered. There is no dispassionate observer, no scrim behind which the set pieces are being shuffled, and studying the structure of his narratives is like peering into an orchid. He uses the GQ assignment to recall a similar trip he’d made, then seventeen and living in Ohio, to visit two childhood friends in his old hometown. You know the impulse (or did, before Facebook)—that not-wholly-innocent curiosity about what happened to the kids you used to build forts with, back before the tracks of class and education began to diverge and run in opposite directions. He finds them. It’s rough. One invites him in without turning off the porn he’s watching. “When I saw you get out the car, I thought, Who the fuck is that? I ’bout shot your for a faggot.” The other has dropped out of school. “Ah, ya’ll probably got some good niggers in Ohio,” he says, by way of idle conversation. “We’re fixin’ to have race war with the ones we got here.”
It’s a neat trick—interrupt reportage with memoir to take the harsh spotlight of a straight profile and shine it on yourself for a moment. It’s also exceedingly difficult. It can go all kinds of wrong. And what better way to risk the rancor of your readers (and editors) than veering from “the biggest rock star on the planet, a man who started riots in more than one country and dumped a supermodel and duetted with Mick Jagger” to yourself at seventeen, watching a woman pleasure herself with a peeled banana? But for Sullivan and a precious few other writers—insert obligatory DFW comparison here—the conceit unfolds beautifully. It clarifies and sharpens.
Then we’re back in motion, chasing the ghost of Axl Rose around his old haunts. Sullivan asks one of Ax’s childhood friends what the rocker took away from growing up in Lafayette: “The anger, man. I’d say he got that here.”
Not everyone makes it out, of course. Indeed, few of the lowlifes, methheads, child molesters, abused wives, Salvadoran gangsters, and teenage prostitutes in Frank Bill’s rather pulpy debut collection of short stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana, make it any farther than the Hill Clan Cross Cemetery, “a place where bad deals were made good and lessons buried deep.” Pitchfork Crase gets blasted by a .12-gauge, as does Moon Flisport. Dodo Kirby gets his nose “beat into chips of flint” and lips “mashed into blueberry stains” by a trailer park drug lord with a leather asp. And when a 30-30 round hits the Molotov cocktail Pine Box Willie is carrying, turning him into “a human torch,” he rolls around “like electricity trapped in a hamster wheel, his pleas smoldering like the flames that had ignited his body.” (Exactly two of the sixteen stories feature no patri-, homi-, or suicides, and in one of those an elevator rips off an arm.) For crime-fiction fans and Resevoir Dogs aficionados, Bill is a welcome addition to the boys’ club of writers who trade in scumbaggery and vigilante justice. He has an ear for violence the way Nicholson Baker has an ear for coitus, which is to say, he doesn’t simply inflict trauma—he invents it.
Bill’s stories are motivated by the seismic impact of economic restructuring and amphetamines—which followed one another like subsea fault and tsunami—on poor, white, flyover America. “Meth had scourged the land. Made working-class folk less human. More criminal.” Guys who might have once had a job on the line have been replaced by robots, and so spend their days hustling various black markets, trying desperately to stay doped up, crawling around on all fours “mistaking carpet lint for crystal.” The consequences are hideous, particularly for the women. A grandfather molests and then “whores out” his granddaughter to pay for his wife’s medications. (Not to worry—his cancer-stricken wife empties a .22 into him when she finds out, and the granddaughter escapes after burying a double-headed axe into her would-be rapist.) The only description of consensual sex in 270 pages is rendered thus: “She bucked a violent teeter-totter of cold, hard love.”
Pulphead and Crimes seem to share little common blood, aside from being the first two titles in FSG’s new paperback Originals series. Sullivan is doing needlepoint, stitching together stories about Katrina, Bunny Wailer, speleology, and The Real World. (Reading him can feel like walking through a Diane Arbus retrospective, except that he’s not visiting literal freak shows.) Bill is playing with a sledgehammer. But look closer, and their projects are the same.
Both men are working with a literary arsenal of personal history and in situ memory, “fleshed out,” as Gretel Ehrlich once had it, “by the generational weight of one’s family and anchored by a land-bound sense of place.” Here is Sullivan, in an essay about the last of the Southern Agrarians, sorting through his own relationship with the region: “I was under the tragic spell of the South, which you’ve either felt or you haven’t. In my case it was acute because, having grown up in Indiana with a Yankee father, a child exile from Kentucky roots of which I was overly proud, I’d long been aware of a faint nowhereness to my life. I felt it as a physical ache…I loved it as only one who will always be outside it can.” Reading Pulphead’s dispatches from Indiana, Kentucky, and Mississippi, one realizes that when Sullivan is on assignment in the South, he isn’t just reporting. No, he’s trying desperately to make sense of it all.
Bill works the day shift in an industrial paint additive factory in Corydon. The Muse, he told an interviewer, is a cop friend with a good story or an overheard conversation. Hell, when you’re writing about drugs and gunrunning in southern Indiana, the local news is a fine place to start. On October 26th, police busted a burglary ring of meth-cooking white supremacists in Corydon, “local boys from here in Harrison County.” If Bill’s stories are raw and immediate, well, as Faulkner told The Paris Review in 1956, “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life.”
In Pulphead’s opening essay, Sullivan introduces six young West Virginians—Darius, Ritter, Jake, Bub, Josh and Pee-Wee—who are camped out at a Christian rock festival but could have stepped from the pages of Bill’s Crimes. “In their lives,” he writes, “they had known terrific violence…Half of their childhood friends had been murdered—shot or stabbed over drugs or nothing. Others had killed themselves.” (Pee-Wee, we learn in the book’s inscription, won’t live to see twenty.) Bill, in turn, when not orchestrating carnage, conjures men with “carburetor laughs,” boozers who “go swimming in a bottle of bourbon on the basement couch,” and women who know that the secret to a bee sting is bacon grease, the cure for a hangover “fresh-squeezed tomato pulp with canned pickle juice and a shot of Everclear.”
They’re performing the best kind of regionalism, excavating their own pasts even as they chronicle the lives’ of others. They’re getting down to what is really real.
If you happen to be in San Francisco tonight, November 16th, John Jeremiah Sullivan is reading at 7:30 at the Booksmith in the Haight. He will be joined by Oscar Villalon, managing editor of Zyzzyva.