“I had doubts about my doubts.”
John Jeremiah Sullivan inhabits Paul Lakeland's space between. One of the joys of Verdicts is that I get book recommendations and I get help thinking through the books I've read. Because of the recommendation of Anthony Domestico (and James Woods) I recently read Pulphead, Sullivan's collection of essays. And because of Lakeland's recent post, I've been able to frame why I enjoyed Pulphead so much. Although only two of Sullivan's fourteen essays explicitly deal with issues of religious faith and doubt, all fourteen deal with faith and doubt about what we can know and what, to quote from the title of one essay, is "really real."
Sullivan's essays explore what is really real in politics and culture, whether those reflections be essays on post-Katrina New Orleans or the Southern writer Andrew Lyte or making sure blues recordings are saved or cave drawings in Tennessee or Bunny Wailer, the last surviving member of Bob Marley's reggae group. His essay, "Upon this Rock," which opens the collection and is the result of his visit to a Christian rock festival, and his essay "Feet in Smoke," which is about his brother's electrocution, coma, and revival, are superb. They show an intellect struggling with questions of meaning and community, life and death, faith and doubt. Sullivan is not a Christian, but he has a deep respect for genuine belief. Writing about the six young men he befriends at the rock festival, he notes, "it may be the truest thing I will have written here: they were crazy, and they loved God and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that, which I was never capable of. Knowing it isn't true doesn't mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were" (40-1).
I dont mean to diminish the seriousness of Pulphead when I confess that I as I read it, I couldn't stop thinking about television. This is because four of the fourteen essays are inexplicable without thinking about television. Although I don't own a television now (my wife and I watch TV on the internet), like Sullivan, I grew up watching television. Watching television, when I was in grammar school and high school, meant watching MTV. And watching MTV meant never being sure of what was real and what wasn't. Most music videos weren't real, but live performances kind of were. MTV News was real, right? And MTV's The Real World, well, it dealt with real people, and it didn't seem scripted, and the name of the show was the real world, which as a teenager, I desperately wanted to be a part of.
Turns out that Sullivan grew up thinking about the same things, which was a relief in its own way. Not only is reading, pace Jonathan Franzen, a way to be alone, it is also a way to discover there are people just like you. In "Getting Down to What's Really Real," Sullivan profiles a member of one of the seasons of the Real World, the forerunner of most of the reality shows on television today. Now, I had stopped watching the Real World when Steve Mizerak (a.k.a the Miz) was on the show, but Sullivan follows him in a club in North Carolina that pays the Miz to be there and party. (You read that correctly.) It appears the business model works because the club was full when Sullivan met the Miz. The lines between real and virtual blur, because as Sullivan notes, "being on a reality show is precisely what these people are" (98).
Even before celebrities had their own reality shows, rock stars were their own reality shows. They were always performing. They were always playing a part. Yet we somehow knew (or hoped?) that there was something beyond the part they were playing. In the book, Sullivan writes essays about two Generation X icons: Michael Jackson and Axl Rose. And of course, when it came to Jackson and Rose it was never clear what was real and what wasnt.
Sullivan begins his essay about Jackson by noting that the singer's seemingly bizarre (or grandiose) decision to name his sons Prince was actually a decision to honor his mother, whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had been named Prince. "So the ridiculous moniker given by a white man to his black slave, the way you might name a dog, was bestowed upon a black king to his pale-skinned sons and heirs" (109-110). Throughout the essay, Sullivan describes the roles Jackson played and wonders what came naturally to him and what didn't. Sullivan complicates the picture we have of Jackson, arguing, "There appears to exist a nondismissible chance that Michael was some kind of martyr" (125). (The equivocations in that sentence are telling.) "We moan that Michael changed his face out of self-loathing. He may have loved what he became" (126).
In "The Final Comeback of Axl Rose," Sullivan searches to find the history of the man behind the persona in front of the seminal, if fleeting, 90s band Guns 'N Roses. This search begins in Rose's hometown in Indiana where Sullivan talks to people who knew him. It continues to the Guns 'N Roses comeback concerts that occurred a few years ago, where Sullivan tries, unsuccessfully, to interview Rose after one of the shows. At the end of an essay that starts "He is from nowhere," Sullivan concludes, "I don't know him at all. It seems that no one does. But that doesn't mean that there isnt anything to know."
I particularly enjoyed the last essay of the collection Peyton's Place because its setting is almost too good to be true. It turns out that Sullivan's house in Wilmington, North Carolina was actually the set of the television show One Tree Hill. (Full disclosure #1: I know nothing about One Tree Hill except what Sullivan tells me. It sounds a bit like Dawson's Place, the teenage drama that started Katie Holmess career. Full disclosure #2: If Sullivan's house had somehow been the set of The Gilmore Girls, a show which I, at 33, should not enjoy as much as I do, I would have travelled to NC to meet him by now. We'd have a lot to talk about.) Sullivan's house is a place of pilgrimage for fans of the show. After one such visit, Sullivan's young daughter asked why those girls wanted to see their house. After he reminds his daughter that he had told her that their house used to be on a television show, and he explains that those girls loved the show and wanted to see their house, his daughter exclaims, "Are we on a show right now?! [sic]" Sullivan replies, "I said I didn't think so" (365).
I know full well that television does not hold the attention and the imagination of Americans (particularly younger Americans) the way it did for John Jeremiah Sullivan and for me. Yet I don't think Pulphead is likely to become dated any time soon. Sullivan puts a particularly Generation X stamp on questions of faith and doubt, appearance and reality, art and life. The personal reflections he weaves throughout the essays remind us that these are existential questions, not merely academic ones. These questions and the spaces between them will continue -- and should continue -- to fascinate us. Sullivan's ability to frame these questions means that he is a writer we should keep reading.
About the Author
Scott D. Moringiello is the Lawrence C. Gallen Fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department. He blogs at dotCommonweal.