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From Michael Jackson's origin story to Katrina shelters to 'One Tree Hill,' excavating America from the bottom up

click to enlarge HARRY TAYLOR
  • Harry Taylor

Pulphead

by John Jeremiah Sullivan Farrar, Straus and Giroux
384 pages

In “Lahwineski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist,” one of the magazine essays collected in his new book, Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan writes about Constantine Rafinesque, a little-known 19th-century polymath who came to the United States from Europe, twice, and spent a bit of his life and times studying the historic Kentucky mounds: “the rain-smoothed earthen monuments raised on the landscape by hundreds of generations of Native American builders.” Sullivan observes with amazement that Rafinesque “was the only researcher to work seriously on the Kentucky mounds who never harmed them. He did not excavate. He knew there were grave goods inside, but he felt that the most important thing was to describe the exterior as accurately as possible and then protect everything.”

In Pulphead’s next essay, “Unnamed Caves,” Sullivan goes spelunking in the Cumberland Gap with a University of Tennessee scientist, marveling at ancient cave pictographs made by vanished indigenous tribes. Sullivan’s descents are interlarded with accounts of how thoroughly the treasures of the subterranean world – pottery, tombs and so on – have been ransacked over the centuries since the first European settlers arrived. “The first thing the Pilgrims did,” Sullivan writes, “was loot a mound.” The pillaging is still going on today. In “Unnamed Caves,” published about three years ago, Sullivan visits a seasoned digger who shows off some of his haul.

Sullivan’s repeated visits to these mounds, and to their looting, are perhaps not coincidental. In the best pieces in Pulphead, he manages to go deep into his subjects while at the same time leaving them intact and, like Constantine Rafinesque before him, never harming them. He is full of wonder and reverence for what he unearths, from the ancient worlds of mound builders to modern phenomena like Christian-rock music festivals, reality TV (“interior auto-mediation,” he calls it) and the Indiana childhood of Axl Rose (Sullivan grew up not far from Rose, né William Bailey, in southern Indiana). In Sullivan’s hands, the former Guns N’ Roses frontman comes off no less mysterious, exciting and powerful than Rafinesque himself: a living myth.

When writing about contemporary subjects, Sullivan is skilled at shoring up, with a few thousand words, what he calls “the time-lapse sands of pop-cultural oblivion.” His meditation on “Disneying” (a verb he explains at length) in the New York Times Magazine – sadly, not included in this book – ruffled local family-friendly feathers when published in June of this year. Its emphasis on staying stoned as a coping strategy on the quintessential family road trip, complete with crippling sunburn and maximization of “fun-dollars,” may have obscured Sullivan’s incisive reporting on the political and economic ramifications of Disney on Florida.

The wide-ranging subjects in Pulphead are unified into a coherent book by Sullivan’s fine prose and lively voice, which can be scholarly, snarky, lyrical or harsh as suits the occasion. There is some stylistic borrowing from gonzo journalism: “It’s all there, all the old American grotesques, the test-tube babies of Whitman and Poe, a great gauntlet of doubtless eyes, big mouths spewing fantastic catchphrase fountains of impenetrable self-justification, muttering dark prayers, calling on God to strike down those who would fuck with their money, their cash, and always knowing, always preaching.” In the spirit of Hunter S. Thompson, Sullivan – often the protagonist of these collected pieces – depicts himself smoking ganja in Jamaica while interviewing Bunny Wailer, and elsewhere he gets drunk a couple of times, as we might, too, in his shoes.

Sullivan is a more reliable guide, however, into the American grotesque than his gonzo forebears – his presence in Pulphead feels stable and trustworthy, and I think I know why: Despite his insider status in New York literary and publishing circles, he’s a small-town guy. He lives with his family in Wilmington, N.C.; you can see his house on reruns of One Tree Hill, and in Pulphead’s concluding essay, “Peyton’s Place,” you can read about his experience letting out his home to the production. (Fans of One Tree Hill still show up at his front door, apparently, to gawk and take pictures.)

Reading Sullivan’s work, one is tempted to drive down to Wilmington and ring his doorbell, too, but only to see if Sullivan has a few spare hours to drink whiskey and talk. He probably doesn’t, but even so, it’s good to have him around, peering far and deep into the world and then bringing it all back home.

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