Six months ago, when David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King came out, I wrote an essay about it in TIME. I thought it was a good essay. So good was it, I thought, that when Longreads.com picked its favorite long-form essays of the week, mine would be among them.
It was not. I checked.
Even more galling, they had included another essay about David Foster Wallace, one not by me. It was from GQ, and it was by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Who the hell, I asked, is John Jeremiah Sullivan?
JJS, as I have come to think of him, may be the best essayist of his generation. After I read his DFW essay, I made it my business to become something of a JJS scholar. I hunted down everything I could find by him. I did this partly because I enjoyed reading his work, but also so I could bite his style more effectively. He does everything I wish I could do as an essayist.
The hunt would have been easier if I’d had Pulphead, JJS’s new essay collection, which comes out this week. The book leads off with “Upon this Rock,” his epic account of a Christian rock festival called Creation, which he attended in a 29-foot RV. “The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun,” he writes. “Jesus had never been in this RV.” JJS seems to be magnetized: interesting things just automatically happen around him, or maybe he just notices them more than other people. As he approached the festival, waiting in a line of cars, he watched a woman lean out of an orange Datsun. She “blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn.”
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Three things I want to say about that. One, it’s incredible that some lady played a ram’s horn right in front of JJS as he arrived at Creation, but what makes that detail work, and what makes this an essay — and not, say, a tweet — is the orange Datsun; most writers, in their eagerness to get to the horn, would have skipped the Datsun.
Two, rather than simply stunning us with this detail, JJS has the characteristic grace to tell us that he, too, was stunned by the horn. “I understand where you might be coming from,” he writes. “Nevertheless that is what she did. I have it on tape.” This is a crucial part of the JJS ethos: he’s not too cool to be stunned. It’s not just us, it’s him too. We’re all in it together.
Third thing: you can absorb all of the above, RV included, in a single two-page spread of Pulphead (pp 8-9). You don’t even have to turn a page. It’s that rich.
And — and I’m sorry to go on and on — twenty-three pages into this essay, which is a blisteringly fast 40-page read, JJS finds a new gear and pulls the rug out from under us with a personal revelation that throws everything that came before, and that comes after, into a completely new light. (JJS would never mix three metaphors like that in one sentence, but you get what I mean.) There are other writers (not many) who are as funny as JJS, and others (even fewer) as smart, but those writers tend to use humor and smarts as defenses. JJS pairs them with an emotional nakedness and vulnerability unlike anything else I’m aware of in what writing workshops call “creative non-fiction.” Mary Karr, maybe. But that’s it.
Down the line JJS hangs out with washed-up reality stars, and stalks the last surviving member of Bob Marley’s Wailers in Jamaica. He lets his house be used as a location for the TV show One Tree Hill. He muses on the strange life of Axl Rose: Guns ‘n’ Roses “were the last great rock band that didn’t think there was something a bit embarrassing about being in a rock band.” (In journalism, when you write a profile of a person without actually being able to talk to that person, it’s called a “write-around.” This is the greatest write-around ever written-around.)
There are problems with Pulphead. JJS’s best subject is himself, and the line goes a little slack sometimes when he’s not in play, as in his historical essay on the naturalist Constantine Rafinesque. “Violence of the Lambs,” the book’s weakest entry, which is about animal-on-human attacks, comes with another rug-pulling stunt at the end, but it’s the kind that just makes you say “hey, asshole, I want my rug back!” The collection is not as cohesive as it wants to be, which is to say that it’s not cohesive at all, and it shouldn’t pretend to be, even a little. It’s also not published with anything like the gravitas JJS has earned. The title is too faux-cool (as is the flap copy—in my experience anything billed as “mind-bending” won’t actually bend your mind). The cover is muddy. And it’s a paperback original. JJS deserves hardcover!
He’ll get it. He’s not exactly a national secret — he’s already won two National Magazine Awards, among other things, and he’s not yet 40. But he’s the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe. Though DFW might be a better comparison, actually, except that JJS isn’t quite as clever as DFW (who is?), and on the plus side, he never makes the mistake of taking himself too seriously. Everything else, yes. Maybe that’s the key to JJS: he’s a man who happens to have been born in trivial times, and he meets a lot of trivial people, but he treats it all so very, very seriously.
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