Staff Pick: John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead

January 11, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 16 3 min read

cover Mushy book reviews may be a breach of faith, as the late Wilfrid Sheed maintained, but in this case I can’t help myself. Every word I say or write about John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays, Pulphead, turns instantly to mush. Yes, he’s that good. He has that rare ability to make me care deeply about things that held little or no interest before I picked up the book, including Christian rock festivals, the very real unreality of reality TV, the last surviving Southern Agrarian, Native-American cave paintings, Michael Jackson, country blues, Axl Rose, the Tea Party, and how to kill a frog and cook its legs. Sullivan has a vast range, obviously, but his success comes from something much deeper and subtler.

The book’s opening essay, “Upon This Rock,” is a good place to begin illustrating the point. The essay tells the story of what happens to Sullivan at the biggest Christian rock festival in all of Christendom, the Creation Festival, “a veritable Godstock” held every year in rural Pennsylvania. Many reporters, wise to the ways of the world, would have helicoptered in from the coast and delivered yet another predictable let’s-laugh-at-the-Clampetts bulletin from the hinterlands. Not Sullivan. He’s too smart and too honest to go this lazy route. He’s above being above his subjects. Instead, he opens his eyes and his heart to the people who have come to the festival, particularly a group of guys from West Virginia he falls in with – Darius, Jake, Ritter, Bub, Josh, and Pee Wee. Sullivan’s empathy is made easier, he notes, by the fact that he was born in Kentucky and as a teenager went through his own “Jesus phase,” which ended when he started reading books that “didn’t jibe with the Bible” and caused him to question his faith. Books will do that to you. Yet Sullivan admits that he still loves Jesus Christ. “His breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness,” Sullivan writes. “Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what’s fragile and what suffers – there lies sanity. And salvation.”

Sullivan uses such bits of personal history to great advantage in his reporting and writing. Once we know about his “Jesus phase” – and his subsequent loss of faith, and his unwillingness to dismiss believers as fools – we see the thousands of people at the Creation Festival with fresh eyes. Such insights could come only from someone who has done the reporting and has an eye for something that lives way deeper than the much-ballyhooed “telling detail,” way down in the darker sediments of the American soul. Here’s Sullivan’s description of something he didn’t witness at the Creation Festival: “I’ve been to a lot of huge public events in this country during the past five years, writing about sports or whatever, and one thing they all had in common was this weird complicit enmity that American males, in particular, seem to carry around with them much of the time. Call it a laughable generalization, fine, but if you spend enough late afternoons in stadium concourses, you feel it, something darker than machismo. Something  a little wounded, and a little sneering, and just plain ready for bad things to happen.”

It addition to such gem-like observations, Sullivan gives us humor. Here’s his description of the 29-foot whale of a rented RV he drove to the festival: “The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.” Here’s a cute country girl: “Her face was as sweet as a birthday cake beneath spray-hardened bangs.” Here’s delicious food: “She made rum cakes you could eat yourself to death on like a goldfish.” And here’s what he hears: “There was music that sounded like a rabbit’s heartbeat in the core of your brain.”

Sometimes the humor comes with wisdom, as in this verdict on the meaning of an entertainment phenomenon that started way back in the Paleolithic 1990s and long ago went kudzu: “My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows in the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them – too many shows and too many people on the shows – for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.”

Yes, this is indeed us. Is it any wonder I go all mushy when I read this guy?

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. Bill, you already sold me on this book with your earlier praise for it. The only problem is it hasn’t been published in the UK yet. Soon….but the wait is aggravating me.

  2. Nice review Bill. I’m a bookseller, and I bought it after the blurbs caught my eye. A very solid Wells Tower recommendation was the one that sealed it for me, and I’m very pleased I picked it up. A wildly entertaining read that’s also deeply thoughtful and heartfelt. Great, great stuff. I’ve sold a few copies blathering wildly about it and I’m pleased to see great writing leaving the store with eager readers.

  3. Max gave this to me to read, I’m halfway through. I laugh out loud with nearly every essay (the lax application process for renting an RV was especially hilarious) and love how diverse yet thorough the topics are. Great pick, Max :)

  4. “Every word I say or write about John Jeremiah Sullivan’s second collection of essays, Pulphead…”

    Blood Horses, Sullivan’s other book, is not an essay collection. Pulphead is his first essay collection.

  5. I absolutely LOVE this book. My 14-year-old picked it up when she saw it lying around and read the first essay “Upon This Rock.” A self-declared atheist, she too was blown away by the piece.

  6. I look forward to buying, reading and sharing with the whole family. Sounds tantalizingly refreshing in this made for TV, Internet, Podcast, IPhone, IPad viewing world.

  7. Not to be a jerk, but why say “collection of essays” instead of “essay collection”? I am honestly interested why the looser constructions was chosen. Thanks.

  8. A few replies to my readers:

    Ian in the UK – Hang in there. I promise you it will be worth the wait.

    Greg Soucie – Glad the book is selling well at your store. Any time The Millions does some small thing to put books and readers together, we’re elated.

    Mrs. M. – I know the feeling of laughing out loud. It happened, repeatedly, to me too.

    B. – You’re not being a jerk. Close readers are a writer’s best friends. I plead guilty to the capital sin of being prolix for writing “collection of essays” instead of “essay collection.” I promise to try harder in the future.

    Thank you all for reading The Millions.

  9. Thanks for the response. I didn’t want to leave the impression that I didn’t enjoy the piece. I wouldn’t have even asked the question if I hadn’t thought the piece was well written.

  10. Does anyone know if he has any plans for a future novel? I thoroughly enjoyed this essay collection (picked it up based on this review) but I want something longer to dive into.

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