What's in an Essay? 

John Jeremiah Sullivan's Brilliant, Ranging Pulphead

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If certain readers find John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay collection Pulphead lacking in thematic cohesion, it's only because essay collections shouldn't have to be cohesive. Our best essayists are ruminators. They chew on a range of subjects, and their books should reflect such broad vision.

What unites an eclectic collection like Pulphead is that the pieces are generated from the same fascinating mind. Readers are drawn more to the way certain essayists say what they say on various subjects than to the subjects themselves. Who knew I'd care about the last surviving founding member of Bob Marley's Wailers until I read Sullivan's take on him. I love early John Fahey songs, but my interest in Fahey had never been as thoroughly piqued as when I read Sullivan's Fahey story. The same can be said of David Foster Wallace essays: How many of us would otherwise care about cruise ships or lobster festivals had these subjects not passed through DFW's singularly brilliant filter?

Pulphead's subjects range from Michael Jackson to 19th century naturalist Constantine Rafinesque, from Tennessee Native American cave paintings to the experience of letting a crew film One Tree Hill in his house. No matter which essay you crown your favorite, two undeniable highlights are "Upon This Rock," where Sullivan attends a Christian rock festival to explore the genre and his own complicated relationship with it, and "The Final Comeback of Axl Rose," the best piece you'll ever read about Axl.

Sullivan pens fabulous lines. Dip randomly into most any page: "The plateau is positively worm-eaten with caves." And: "My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows of the world. Are we so raw?" And: "This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights." While Sullivan's essays are expansive, his prose alternates between the conciseness of E.B. White and the long, slithering serpents of DFW, and it's always energized by a sly, almost Charles Portis wit.

Contrary to the usual middle-school experience, essays aren't merely bland, thesis-driven arguments. Instead, when they employ some degree of personal experience and cast a wide net, essays make the act of thinking as dramatic and readable as any short story. The best are able to use personal experience to transcend personal experience and reveal some larger aspect of modern life. As the original essayist Michel de Montaigne said, "Every man has within himself the entire human condition." That's what you see when Sullivan admits to being a hardcore Real World fan. How embarrassing, you think, until you remember: Oh yeah, I love trash TV, too.

Pulphead's pieces aren't content conveying information. Sullivan pulls in everything, including himself, to convey themes larger than the obvious subject. "Getting Down to What Is Really Real," ostensibly about reality TV, is really about the blurry line between observer and participant, fiction and reality. "At a Shelter (After Katrina)" presents not only a vision of hurricane damage, but a glimpse of apocalypse, capturing the terror and isolation of a society's potential unraveling. Which is to say that one of Sullivan's gifts is his ability to write essays about the timely subjects that are the journalist's trade: pop stars, disasters, Americana. This places Sullivan in the venerated, hybrid "literary journalist" category alongside Tom Wolfe, Joseph Mitchell, Joan Didion, and, especially, David Foster Wallace. Sullivan's everything you need in an essayist, even if you didn't yet know you needed an essayist at all.

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