Writing compelling copy about the country’s largest Christian rock festival takes a rare breed of writer. Infusing the power of shared human experience and the complexity of multigenerational religious discovery with healthy skepticism while remaining both respectful and hilarious takes an even rarer breed of writer.
That’s evident in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essays, which have been printed in GQ, The New York Times Magazine and elsewhere. His second book, Pulphead, is a collection of essays centered on American culture. It combines richly dynamic, witty writing with probing analyses in a way that makes you wonder if the stories are just too amusing or symbolic to actually be true.
Sullivan’s subjects span from Axl Rose to Hurricane Katrina to MTV’s The Real World to Michael Jackson. Translating such hyper-reported topics into fresh language takes talent. Heaps of it.
Back to the festival: The essay involves Sullivan driving a 29-foot RV down the Pennsylvania Turnpike at rush hour to spend the weekend with 100,000 believers. In describing the rented RV, he writes, “The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.”
One of the most intriguing pieces is his retelling of the near-death of his brother, who flat-lined five times and temporarily lost normal brain function, after a microphone electrocuted him while playing a song called “Is It All Over.” In 10 pages, Sullivan questions the mysteries of the brain, the moment before death and the concept of miracles while slipping in nuggets of comedy.
That’s the thing about these stories: They’re perfectly balanced between surface-level humor and intense insight. Sullivan’s ample curiosity is what ties Pulphead together, and the book ends up feeling almost like a memoir. Through his investigations of society in the midst of disaster, death, fame, religion and loss, Sullivan’s personal discoveries become ours.
GO: John Jeremiah Sullivan will speak at Powell’s Books on Hawthorne, 3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Nov. 17. Free.