John Jeremiah Sullivan, Pulphead

Do you want to know what it’s like to drive a windmill with tires down the Pennsylvania Turnpike at rush hour by your lonesome, with darting bug-eyes and shaking hands; or about Greg’s laughing phone call ‘to see how it’s going’; about hearing yourself say ‘no No NO NO!’ in a shamefully high-pitched voice every time you try to merge; or about thinking you detect, beneath the mysteriously comforting blare of the radio, faint honking sounds, then checking your passenger-side mirror only to find you’ve been straddling the lanes for an unknown number of miles (those two extra feet!) and that line of traffic you’ve kept pinned stretches back farther than you can see; or about stopping at Target to buy sheets and a pillow and peanut butter but then practicing your golf swing in the sporting-goods aisle for a solid twenty-five minutes, unable to stop, knowing that when you do, the twenty-nine-footer will be where you left her, alone in the side lot, waiting for you to take her the rest of the way to your shared destiny?

From early in “Upon this Rock,” the first essay in Sullivan’s brilliant essay collection, Pulphead, this sentence is one of many that made me gasp or laugh out loud while reading. In this one long, winding question, Sullivan puts his gifts of wit and observation on display–on the whole, this is a book that nearly crackles with intelligence, but not in a way that says “Hey, look at me!” I got around to finishing Pulphead recently while on vacation and found myself thoroughly engrossed and entertained. And much of that entertainment derives both from the wide-ranging subjects Sullivan chooses–a Christian-rock festival, the effects of lighting on the brain, Axl Rose, long-lost Blues greats, recently discovered Native American cave art, animals attacking humans, etc–and from the sheer pleasure that lifts off from Sullivan’s sentences. He’s enjoying himself, the sentences tell us over and over again, so why not join him?

That Sullivan doesn’t mind implicating and making fun of himself–as in the above mini-story about trying to drive a large RV foisted on him by an editor for his trip to a Christian rock fest–certainly doesn’t hurt. Or that Sullivan tackles all manner of subjects–from Michael Jackson’s true nature to Bunny Wailer’s constantly ringing cell phones–with equal verve.

I can easily imagine the scene described above being milked for 2-3 pages worth of jokes and small dramas by a lesser writer, but it’s characteristic of Sullivan that it’s a single sentence in an essay packed with scenes and descriptions and ideas. While Sullivan is plenty implicated in all of these essays and we see through his eyes, he’s also in search of his subjects, constantly probing, prodding, debating, never letting them out of his sights for long.

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