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Pulphead

I struggle with collections of essays. Do I read them straight through, in order, as if I’m reading a novel? Read one here, one there, between other books? Read a few, put them aside for a while, read a few more? What usually happens is that I randomly choose one or two, start them, see what I think, eventually settle on one I want to finish, then another, then maybe another, put the collection aside, and a year later I have no idea which ones I’ve already read.

Mostly, I just don’t read them.

But mostly, they don’t get reviews like those for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. Did you see the NYT Sunday review last October? Gideon Lewis-Kraus began:

It is something of a surprise that one of the best magazine profiles of the last decade is about Axl Rose. But such is the work of John Jeremiah Sullivan, who can take pretty much anything you never thought you’d want to read about respectably (Axl Rose, “Real World”) or anything you never thought you’d want to read about at all (a Christian-rock festival, long-forgotten naturalist loons), and make of it the sort of essay-world you just want to dwell inside. Sullivan seems able to do almost anything, to work in any register, and not just within a single piece but often in the span of a single paragraph.

Or James Wood’s review two months later in The New Yorker?

It is obvious enough that [the essays] are by a talented storyteller, who has learned from fiction (as well as from the essayistic tradition) how to structure and ration his narratives. He seems to have in abundance the storyteller’s gifts: he is a fierce noticer, is undauntedly curious, is porous to gossip, and has a memory of childlike tenacity. Anecdotes fly off the wheels of his larger narratives.

I bought it. For Joel. But I share my Kindle account with him, so buying for him amounts to buying for me too, and I have been dipping into it.

A month ago I mentioned in passing, while writing about another book, that I “found his essay on Michael Jackson improbably thrilling.” I don’t care about Michael Jackson. I mean, I appreciate the greatness of his music, the bizarreness (or worse) of his life. But read about him? No way. Yet, Sullivan drew me in, and convinced me that this was a worthy subject.

I was going to quote from Sullivan’s account of Jackson’s appearance in the 25th anniversary celebration of Motown, but it’s too long, and you should read it whole. Suffice to say, it will have you racing to youtube to find this:

At the end of the account, Johnson quotes Quincy Jones, Jackson’s producer, who would tell Jackson to “get out of the way and leave room so that God can walk in,” and concludes, “A god moves through him. The god enters, the good leaves.”

Earlier, Johnson had described what Bruce Swedien, famous audio engineer, had to say at a conference.

Someone in the audience raises a hand and asks if it’s hard recording Michael’s voice, given that, as Swedien mentioned before, Michael is very “physical.”

[snip]

“He’s unbelievable.”

He gives the most beautiful description. “Michael records in the dark,” he says, “and he’ll dance. And picture this. You’re looking through the glass. And it’s dark. With a little pin spot on him.” Swedien lifts his hand to suggest a narrow cone of light shining directly down from overhead. “And you’ll see the mike here. And he’ll sing his lines. And then he disappears.”

In the outer dark he is dancing, fluttering. That’s all Quincy and Swedien know.

“And he’s” — Swedien punches the air — “right back in front of the mike at the precise instant.”

What else? The first, and longest, essay is the one on the Christian-rock festival. It’s brilliant. Less successful is Johnson’s description of the tea party 9/12 march on Washington a couple of years back, though it has its moments. Then there’s “The Last Wailer,” which begins:

In early July 2010, I flew to Jamaica in hope of contacting Bunny Wailer, the last of the Wailers, Bob Marley’s original band. If you don’t know who he is — and of the people who read this, surely a goodly percentage won’t know; to the rest it will seem asinine to ID such a major figure; either way, though, this is worth doing — find a computer clip of the Wailers performing “Stir It Up” on The Old Grey Whistle Test, a music show that used to run on the BBC. It was 1973, their first real tour. Bunny is off to Bob’s left, singing the high part and doing a little repetitive one-two accent thing with brushes on snares. He’s wonderfully dressed in a tasseled burgundy Shriner’s fez and abstract Rastafarian sweater-vest. All three of them look like they could have been in Fat Albert’s gang. Possibly no group of musicians has ever looked flat cooler. Peter Tosh was a tall, purple sphinx with an inexplicably sweet falsetto. If Elvis had walked in, Tosh might have nodded.

Here it is:

You know that Axl Rose profile the NYT reviewer led with? Near the end, Johnson has a beautiful extended passage about his own youth in Indiana, moving away, returning at 17 to see one-time friends, the awkward result.

A gulf had appeared. It opened the first day of seventh grade when some of us went into the “accelerated” program. By sheerest coincidence, I’m sure, this division ran perfectly parallel to the one between our respective parents’ income brackets. I remember Ricky and me running into each other in the hallway the first day of seventh grade and with a confusion that we were far too young to handle, both being like, “Why aren’t you in any of my classes?”

And there’s this bit of geology, from an essay on Native American cave drawings.

The sites go form Missouri over to Virginia, and from Wisconsin to Florida, but the bulk are in middle Tennessee, and of those a greater number exist on or near the Cumberland Plateau, which runs at a southwest slant down the eastern part of the state, like a great wall dividing the Appalachians from the interior.

That’s what it was, for white settlers who wanted to cross it in wagons. If you read about Daniel Boone and the Cumberland Gap, and how excited everyone got in the eighteenth century to have found a natural pass (known, incidentally, to every self-respecting Indian guide) through the “Cumberland Mountains,” those writers mean the plateau. Technically, it’s not a mountain or a mountain chain, though it can look mountainous. A mountain is when you smash two tectonic plates together and the leading edges rise up into the sky like sumo wrestlers lifting up from the mat. A plateau, on the other hand, sits above the landscape because it has remained in place while everything else washed away.

I finished the collection today. I’m hooked. I’ll be on the lookout for more.

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