A People of Savage Sentimentality

Reviewed By

John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead should be hailed not simply as a fabulous piece of writing but as a landmark debut of a new genre, invented by others but perfected here.

Time was, let’s say the 1940s, there were Reporters and there were Authors. The former wore charcoal suits and punched a timeclock and gathered the five Ws and the H, while the latter wore undershirts, sipped jug wine, and during regular business hours violated social mores and sometimes the Mann Act. A Reporter like Joseph Mitchell might venture into bohemia and fire dispatches back to a respectable publication, and rarer still a Reporter whose life was so allegorical to his times, say George Orwell, would capture the zeitgeist simply by writing about himself, but mostly the classes did not overlap. The Reporter was an employee, while the Author—in the words of Tom Wolfe “that ego-flushed little bastard with the unbuttoned shirt and the wind rushing through his locks”—was an artist.

Then the 60s, and everything got mixed up. Reporters like Wolfe and Gay Talese scrapped the triangular news story and rebuilt it with the voice, characters and suspense of a novel. Novelists Truman Capote and Joan Didion made tabloid news about murder and hippies resonate like Dostoyevsky. Would-be Authors Hunter Thompson and Michael Herr landed jobs for The Nation and Rolling Stone and Esquire, infusing their reporting with hallucinations. The New Journalists captured the era better than novelists like Updike and Roth and Bellow who flattered by imitation their forebears, but took three times as many pages to do it. And the authors who expressed the upheaval through experimentation, like Richard Brautigan and Thomas Pynchon and Ken Kesey, already feel gimmicky. Sometimes A Great Notion, which when I was 22 seemed a masterpiece, struck me at 40 as a belabored copy of Faulkner; but Tom Wolfe’s portrait of the swashbuckler in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test rings fresh. How strange that the Reporter captured the Author better than the Author himself.

All that happened before I was born. By the time I reached writing age, both novels and New Journalism had been displaced in houses of publishing by the memoir. Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr and Kathyrn Harrison made the autobiography something we’d like to read not just today but well into the future. But by the mid-zeroes, the pool was soiled with hundreds of knock-offs and weepy tales of self-acceptance, many of them not memoirs at all but B-grade novels exploiting the industry’s fact-checking loophole for autobiographers.

What innovations, then, for us? Those of us who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s had the suspicion that our country’s best years were behind us. We were told that ours was a nation of moral strength and innovative spirit and liberty for all, but as soon as we turned off the television and looked around, we saw little evidence. Instead we saw a country that was derivative and synthetic: a second-rate clone of America. Entire cities were built behind walls, where sprawling cul-de-sacs prioritized ample parking and commuter convenience at the expense of knowing the people on your street. The creative spirit that spawned jazz and rock and the American novel—art forms that surely connected us—had withered, replaced by franchise movies based on video games, pre-teen pop singers, and choreographed game shows. The western wilderness with its seemingly endless resources and wonder had long since closed, its picturesque states now peppered with a curious mix of post-industrial waste and pay-to-enter “recreation areas.” The nation that pioneered religious liberty had contracted a case of schizophrenia, its people dispersing to the fringes, at one end the credit-card circuses of blubbering TV charlatans, and at the other end some lower-case spiritualism whose primary ingredients appeared to be self-help, psychotherapy, and yoga. The question facing us at millennium’s end was: how can we possibly survive all this goddamn freedom?

A couple of works of fiction—I’m thinking of The Virgin Suicides and A Visit From The Goon Squad—tackled this question with startling innovation that left me lightheaded, but for the most part the genre that has best responded best to this generational dilemma of seeking truth amidst the untruth we were handed, has not been fiction or journalism or memoir, but the essay, and not the inward solipsism of EB White or Annie Dillard, but something new, some seven-legged creature that announced its big ideas in the voice and narrative of fiction, depicted its crises with the vulnerable revelations of memoir, and gathered evidence with the actual legwork of reporting. David Foster Wallace pioneered it with his hyper-observed visits to a cruise ship, a state fair, and a porn festival—Gulliver washing onto the shores of what at first would appear a make-believe world and slapping his forehead and saying, Wow, this is really how we live now. Elizabeth Gilbert did it with her book-length profile of a modern-day mountain man, a walking talking metaphor for all the forks in the road America did not choose over the past century. Others who turned themselves into astonished characters romping through hyperreality were Sarah Vowell, Scott Carrier, Evan Wright, and George Saunders.

None that I’m aware of has so totally metastasized into this new thing, this jagged-toothed peeing-on-the-floor tail-wagging beast, as John Jeremiah Sullivan (b. 1974), whose new collection Pulphead should be hailed not simply as a fabulous piece of writing but as a landmark debut of a new genre, invented by others but perfected here.

Much of the collection entails Sullivan the reporter bellyflopping into circus americanus, skewering and celebrating its reality TV, Michael Jackson and teenage Christian rock fests. It’s fertile ground, and Sullivan is always tapping the faux façade over what is real, such as when he drolly notes that Axl Rose appears to be wearing an Axl Rose mask, or that the aging rocker’s famous snaky slide-foot dance “reminds me of one’s wasted redneck uncle trying to ‘do his Axl Rose’ after a Super Bowl party.” We get it: Axl the person is not Axl the celebrity, and though this does not come as a revelation, it’s dazzling when Sullivan demonstrates it. These pieces remind me of the best of Wallace and Tom Wolfe, that wide-eyed lit crit with his fifty-cent words embedded in the vibrant stupidity of pop culture. One would be right to say that endeavoring to reveal our country’s meta-reality by writing about reality TV is just shooting fish in barrel, but nonetheless: this fellow hits a lot of fish. What distinguishes Sullivan from his influences is that he doesn’t stand outside the party lobbing irony bombs, but rather exuberantly professes his adoration of Guns N Roses, Michael Jackson, The Real World, even Jesus. It changes the tone from snarky to sweet, and that matters. Perhaps what keeps even the best journalists from affecting us the way novelists do is that critical distance, and by including himself in the pool of fools, Sullivan achieves pathos that the others lack. (It’s a delicate dance, and the one instance where he stumbles is trying to convince us that he shares the same goals as the Tea Party marchers and Glenn Beck’s 9/12 event; it feels like a thin conceit, rather than his honest fanship for the Road Rules.)

The rest of the essays are more traditional memoir, the tightly wrought and poetically moving stories you’d hear from Tobias Wolff or Mary Karr. Even if these, Sullivan remains aware of that filter or falseness with which we’ve come to view reality: in a sublime essay about the near-death electrocution of his brother, Sullivan is sure to mention that he learned many of the details about his family’s own story by watching it depicted on William Shatner’s reality show, Rescue 911, in which, in a gorgeous twist, the brother reenacted an event of which he has no memory.

The essays that soar most gracefully, though, are those where he does both things—memoir and reporting—at once. Sullivan digresses in the Rose profile to a glimpse of his own Indiana upbringing, and suddenly the piece isn’t about a foolish celebrity, but about the small town despair and the collapse of Midwestern optimism. A comedy of errors about renting out his home as a set for a TV show becomes a meditation on what it means to be a real father in an unreal world. Most memorable is his voyage to Creation, the Christian rock festival. He frames this second-rate magazine assignment as a mock-epic, complete with biblical allusions (“in the beginning”), snarky puns (“my voyage to Creation”) and even the trappings of a hero’s quest, with a fellow pilgrim who “rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn.” Sullivan falls in with some West Virginians “on fire for Christ” who appear to live in the woods and subsist on wild frogs and what not, perhaps like the early disciples. But whereas an equally accomplished ironist might have fed these boys to the lions, mocking their ernest evangelicism so foolish to New York magazine readers, Sullivan on page 23 makes a most startling turn, and reveals his own born-again teen years, and then ditching the cynicism altogether he turns the thing upside down and ends on a sincere note of admiration—even envy—for his new Christian friends.”Knowing it isn’t true doesn’t mean you would be strong enough to believe it if it were.”

Sullivan is aware that in these most dire of times, irony alone will not feed the patient. While I know of a few writers who plunge as fearlessly into the discharge of the culture machine, I know of none other with the courage—yes courage—to float back clinging shamelessly to its flotsam. “This is us,” Sullivan concludes: “a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.”

Mark Sundeen was born in Harbor City, California, in 1970. He is an award-winning writer whose nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Outside, National Geographic Adventure, the Believer, and elsewhere. He is the author of the books Car Camping and The Making of Toro, and co-author of North By Northwestern, which was a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller. He has taught fiction and nonfiction at the MFA creative writing programs at the University of New Mexico and Western Connecticut State University. He lives in Montana and Utah. More from this author →