This is my first ever book review, and I’m worried that my anxiety of besmirching Josh and Ben’s review blog may lead me to befuddling what I want to say in a swamp of circumlocution and all-around babbling. So let me say this as plainly as possible: Pulphead: Essays, a series of fourteen, well, essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan is one of the most consistently well-written and entertaining pieces of writing I’ve ever had the joy to read.
On its surface, there’s no real common thread weaving its way through Sullivan’s collection. There are several essays about music, but even those cover wildly different topics, from Axl Rose’s comeback tour to Sullivan’s brief foray into the world of niche collectors of rare blues recording. Some are personal, like when Sullivan recalls the years of his life in which his home was used as one of the main sets of the television show One Tree Hill. There’s a historical essay on the eccentric 18th-19th century naturalist Constantine Rafinesque, Sullivan recalling his treks into a series of caves that house ancient Native American artifacts, and even one in which Sullivan gets swept up into a conspiracy theory related to an impending global animal coup.
However, as you delve through Sullivan’s writing, they begin to form a sort of jigsaw memoir. Sullivan’s recollection of his teenage years spent as a born-again Christian make sense of his ability to quote Bible verses out of thin air in an essay about the Tea Party; his deep, nuanced love and respect for music is given a personal tinge in the chapter that deals with his brother being nearly electrocuted to death by a microphone while practicing in a garage with his band; his interest in Rafinesque is slightly attributed to the thinker’s brief stay with his “great-great-great-grandparents”; as you delve further and further, each chapter transforms from an individual work into a part of a tapestry.
These connections are all seeped in Sullivan’s unique and compelling writing style. His voice is unique: calm and thoughtful, yet equally curious. You get a sense that Sullivan is just as eager to interview and research his subjects as we are to read his recollections, but has paused for significant reflection before penning it all, his experiences spilling out in waves of long-form sentences that encourage you, too, to linger and think upon each one.
But for all the evident thought and care that has gone into these writings, Sullivan knows when its best to let the stories speak for themselves and lay it all out bare. He cries, he gets high and/or drunk more than a few times, and he’s even molested by an old man. Sullivan never seeks to wear rose-tinted glasses or root for the happy ending, instead dutifully presenting each story as it is. Even framed within Sullivan’s prose, each picture has its frayed edges, burnt bits, and damage.
There are a few times where it feels like Sullivan is straining a bit to bring some of his lower-level subjects into a similar strata of his big-time pieces. For me, personally, the section on Rafinesque seemed to overstay its welcome, and Sullivan’s almost fanboy levels of glee present in his chapter about ex-MTV reality star and current pro wrestler Mike “The Miz” Mizanin borders on self-indulgence.
That sort of failing is fleeting, though; the rest of Sullivan’s prose is masterful, spot-on, and evocative. I give Pulphead: Essays a hearty four-and-a-half helpings of lasagna out of five. Sprinkle some parmesan cheese on that little burnt edge and you won’t even remember it was there by the time you’ve finished your meal.