In an October 1957 letter to a friend who had recommended he read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “Although I don’t feel that it’s at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I’m going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I’ll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in sudden outbursts of frustrated violence. . . .”
Thompson carved out his niche early. He was born in 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky, where his fiction and poetry earned him induction into the local Athenaeum Literary Association while he was still in high school. Thompson continued his literary pursuits in the United States Air Force, writing a weekly sports column for the base newspaper. After two years of service, Thompson endured a series of newspaper jobs—all of which ended badly—before he took to freelancing from Puerto Rico and South America for a variety of publications. The vocation quickly developed into a compulsion.
Thompson completed The Rum Diary, his only novel to date, before he turned twenty-five; bought by Ballantine Books, it finally was published—to glowing reviews—in 1998. In 1967, Thompson published his first nonfiction book, Hell’s Angels, a harsh and incisive firsthand investigation into the infamous motorcycle gang then making the heartland of America nervous.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which first appeared in Rolling Stone in November 1971, sealed Thompson’s reputation as an outlandish stylist successfully straddling the line between journalism and fiction writing. As the subtitle warns, the book tells of “a savage journey to the heart of the American Dream” in full-tilt gonzo style—Thompson’s hilarious first-person approach—and is accented by British illustrator Ralph Steadman’s appropriate drawings.
His next book, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72, was a brutally perceptive take on the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. A self-confessed political junkie, Thompson chronicled the 1992 presidential campaign in Better than Sex (1994). Thompson’s other books include The Curse of Lono (1983), a bizarre South Seas tale, and three collections of Gonzo Papers: The Great Shark Hunt (1979), Generation of Swine (1988) and Songs of the Doomed (1990).
In 1997, The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967, the first volume of Thompson’s correspondence with everyone from his mother to Lyndon Johnson, was published. The second volume of letters, Fear and Loathing in America: The Brutal Odyssey of an Outlaw Journalist, 1968-1976, has just been released.
Located in the mostly posh neighborhood of western Colorado’s Woody Creek Canyon, ten miles or so down-valley from Aspen, Owl Farm is a rustic ranch with an old-fashioned Wild West charm. Although Thompson’s beloved peacocks roam his property freely, it’s the flowers blooming around the ranch house that provide an unexpected high-country tranquility. Jimmy Carter, George McGovern and Keith Richards, among dozens of others, have shot clay pigeons and stationary targets on the property, which is a designated Rod and Gun Club and shares a border with the White River National Forest. Almost daily, Thompson leaves Owl Farm in either his Great Red Shark Convertible or Jeep Grand Cherokee to mingle at the nearby Woody Creek Tavern.
Visitors to Thompson’s house are greeted by a variety of sculptures, weapons, boxes of books and a bicycle before entering the nerve center of Owl Farm, Thompson’s obvious command post on the kitchen side of a peninsula counter that separates him from a lounge area dominated by an always-on Panasonic TV, always tuned to news or sports. An antique upright piano is piled high and deep enough with books to engulf any reader for a decade. Above the piano hangs a large Ralph Steadman portrait of “Belinda”—the Slut Goddess of Polo. On another wall covered with political buttons hangs a Che Guevara banner acquired on Thompson’s last tour of Cuba. On the counter sits an IBM Selectric typewriter—a Macintosh computer is set up in an office in the back wing of the house.
The most striking thing about Thompson’s house is that it isn’t the weirdness one notices first: it’s the words. They’re everywhere—handwritten in his elegant lettering, mostly in fading red Sharpie on the blizzard of bits of paper festooning every wall and surface: stuck to the sleek black leather refrigerator, taped to the giant TV, tacked up on the lampshades; inscribed by others on framed photos with lines like, “For Hunter, who saw not only fear and loathing, but hope and joy in ’72—George McGovern”; typed in IBM Selectric on reams of originals and copies in fat manila folders that slide in piles off every counter and table top; and noted in many hands and inks across the endless flurry of pages.
Thompson extricates his large frame from his ergonomically correct office chair facing the TV and lumbers over graciously to administer a hearty handshake or kiss to each caller according to gender, all with an easy effortlessness and unexpectedly old-world way that somehow underscores just who is in charge.
We talked with Thompson for twelve hours straight. This was nothing out of the ordinary for the host: Owl Farm operates like an eighteenth-century salon, where people from all walks of life congregate in the wee hours for free exchanges about everything from theoretical physics to local water rights, depending on who’s there. Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time, was present during parts of this interview, as were a steady stream of friends. Given the very late hours Thompson keeps, it is fitting that the most prominently posted quote in the room, in Thompson’s hand, twists the last line of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”: “Rage, rage against the coming of the light.”
For most of the half-day that we talked, Thompson sat at his command post, chain-smoking red Dunhills through a German-made gold-tipped cigarette filter and rocking back and forth in his swivel chair. Behind Thompson’s sui generis personality lurks a trenchant humorist with a sharp moral sensibility. His exaggerated style may defy easy categorization, but his career-long autopsy on the death of the American dream places him among the twentieth century’s most exciting writers. The comic savagery of his best work will continue to electrify readers for generations to come.
. . . I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English Language—and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music.
HUNTER S. THOMPSON
Well, wanting to and having to are two different things. Originally I hadn’t thought about writing as a solution to my problems. But I had a good grounding in literature in high school. We’d cut school and go down to a café on Bardstown Road where we would drink beer and read and discuss Plato’s parable of the cave. We had a literary society in town, the Athenaeum; we met in coat and tie on Saturday nights. I hadn’t adjusted too well to society—I was in jail for the night of my high school graduation—but I learned at the age of fifteen that to get by you had to find the one thing you can do better than anybody else . . . at least this was so in my case. I figured that out early. It was writing. It was the rock in my sock. Easier than algebra. It was always work, but it was always worthwhile work. I was fascinated early by seeing my byline in print. It was a rush. Still is.
When I got to the Air Force, writing got me out of trouble. I was assigned to pilot training at Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola in northwest Florida, but I was shifted to electronics . . . advanced, very intense, eight-month school with bright guys . . . I enjoyed it but I wanted to get back to pilot training. Besides, I’m afraid of electricity. So I went up there to the base education office one day and signed up for some classes at Florida State. I got along well with a guy named Ed and I asked him about literary possibilities. He asked me if I knew anything about sports, and I said that I had been the editor of my high-school paper. He said, “Well, we might be in luck.” It turned out that the sports editor of the base newspaper, a staff sergeant, had been arrested in Pensacola and put in jail for public drunkenness, pissing against the side of a building; it was the third time and they wouldn’t let him out.
So I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night. This was my ticket to ride, my ticket to get out of that damn place. So I started as an editor. Boy, what a joy. I wrote long Grantland Rice-type stories. The sports editor of my hometown Louisville Courier Journal always had a column, left-hand side of the page. So I started a column.
By the second week I had the whole thing down. I could work at night. I wore civilian clothes, worked off base, had no hours, but I worked constantly. I wrote not only for the base paper, The Command Courier, but also the local paper, The Playground News. I’d put things in the local paper that I couldn’t put in the base paper. Really inflammatory shit. I wrote for a professional wrestling newsletter. The Air Force got very angry about it. I was constantly doing things that violated regulations. I wrote a critical column about how Arthur Godfrey, who’d been invited to the base to be the master of ceremonies at a firepower demonstration, had been busted for shooting animals from the air in Alaska. The base commander told me: “Goddamn it, son, why did you have to write about Arthur Godfrey that way?”
When I left the Air Force I knew I could get by as a journalist. So I went to apply for a job at Sports Illustrated. I had my clippings, my bylines, and I thought that was magic . . . my passport. The personnel director just laughed at me. I said, “Wait a minute. I’ve been sports editor for two papers.” He told me that their writers were judged not by the work they’d done, but where they’d done it. He said, “Our writers are all Pulitzer Prize winners from The New York Times. This is a helluva place for you to start. Go out into the boondocks and improve yourself.”
I was shocked. After all, I’d broken the Bart Starr story.
What was that?
At Eglin Air Force Base we always had these great football teams. The Eagles. Championship teams. We could beat up on the University of Virginia. Our bird-colonel Sparks wasn’t just any yo-yo coach. We recruited. We had these great players serving their military time in ROTC. We had Zeke Bratkowski, the Green Bay quarterback. We had Max McGee of the Packers. Violent, wild, wonderful drunk. At the start of the season McGee went AWOL, appeared at the Green Bay camp and he never came back. I was somehow blamed for his leaving. The sun fell out of the firmament. Then the word came that we were getting Bart Starr, the All-American from Alabama. The Eagles were going to roll! But then the staff sergeant across the street came in and said, “I’ve got a terrible story for you. Bart Starr’s not coming.” I managed to break into an office and get out his files. I printed the order that showed he was being discharged medically. Very serious leak.
The Bart Starr story was not enough to impress Sports Illustrated?
The personnel guy there said, “Well, we do have this trainee program.” So I became a kind of copy boy.
You eventually ended up in San Francisco. With the publication in 1967 of Hell’s Angels, your life must have taken an upward spin.
All of a sudden I had a book out. At the time I was twenty-nine years old and I couldn’t even get a job driving a cab in San Francisco, much less writing. Sure, I had written important articles for The Nation and The Observer, but only a few good journalists really knew my byline. The book enabled me to buy a brand new BSA 650 Lightning, the fastest motorcycle ever tested by Hot Rod magazine. It validated everything I had been working toward. If Hell’s Angels hadn’t happened I never would have been able to write Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or anything else. To be able to earn a living as a freelance writer in this country is damned hard; there are very few people who can do that. Hell’s Angels all of a sudden proved to me that, Holy Jesus, maybe I can do this. I knew I was a good journalist. I knew I was a good writer, but I felt like I got through a door just as it was closing.
With the swell of creative energy flowing throughout the San Francisco scene at the time, did you interact with or were you influenced by any other writers?
Ken Kesey for one. His novels One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion had quite an impact on me. I looked up to him hugely. One day I went down to the television station to do a roundtable show with other writers, like Kay Boyle, and Kesey was there. Afterwards we went across the street to a local tavern and had several beers together. I told him about the Angels, who I planned to meet later that day, and I said, “Well, why don’t you come along?” He said, “Whoa, I’d like to meet these guys.” Then I got second thoughts, because it’s never a good idea to take strangers along to meet the Angels. But I figured that this was Ken Kesey, so I’d try. By the end of the night Kesey had invited them all down to La Honda, his woodsy retreat outside of San Francisco. It was a time of extreme turbulence—riots in Berkeley. He was always under assault by the police—day in and day out, so La Honda was like a war zone. But he had a lot of the literary, intellectual crowd down there, Stanford people also, visiting editors, and Hell’s Angels. Kesey’s place was a real cultural vortex.
FEBRUARY 10, 2012
IN THE SWIRL OF COMMENTARY surrounding Pulphead, the essay collection by John Jeremiah Sullivan, nothing seems to come up more than the so-called New Journalism. Upon its release, for instance, the volume’s publisher claimed that Sullivan channels “the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion,” while Lev Grossman of Time magazine writes that he is “the closest thing we have right now to Tom Wolfe, and that includes Tom Wolfe.” And J.C. Gabel, in Bookforum, says Pulphead “calls to mind some of the best New Journalism of the ’60s and ’70s.” Undoubtedly, Sullivan — a 37-year-old writer-at-large for GQ, a contributing editor for Harper’s, and the southern editor of The Paris Review — is an admirer of the ur-texts by the preeminent essayists of the movement. Like them in their best work, Sullivan proves to be a masterful handler of cultural confusion, approaching matters from oblique angles while eschewing boilerplate themes and orderly conclusions.
In his introduction to the 1973 anthology The New Journalism, Wolfe argues that the writers collected therein drew heavily from “the techniques of realism — particularly of the sort found in Fielding, Smollett, Balzac, Dickens and Gogol.” Sullivan’s work, however, isn’t a mere pastiche of his forebears. He’s not engrossed with social status like Wolfe, nor does he succumb to the cynical grandiloquence one often finds in Thompson’s journalistic transgressions. And unlike Didion, whose early nonfiction routinely stripped away façades to expose fraud, Sullivan works in the opposite direction, humanely revealing the complexity within subjects typically seen as neglected, overwrought, or insipid. Wolfe and his contemporaries, rather than illustrating, say, class hardships, chiefly addressed in their reportage newfangled phenomena and fringe subcultures with a mix of literary flair and a detached, ethnological eye.
What’s so fresh about Sullivan’s essayistic temperament, on the other hand, is that he runs his nonfictions through a Southern Gothic filter, emphasizing particularly the tragicomic side of the genre and its often overlooked compassion. Throughout the collection, his subjects — dehumanized outliers and the ineffable cultural artifact — are those with histories that adhere like kudzu weed. If there’s an ethos that frames the work, it’s at once an American sense of the grotesque and William Faulkner’s well-known adage from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Take “Upon This Rock,” Pulphead‘s opening essay in which Sullivan covers “Creation,” a Christian rock-festival in rural Pennsylvania. Sullivan lunges into evangelical culture with shrewd and humorous discernment, but with an empathic mindset and no superfluous bathos. Wolfe and Didion, one imagines, would likely observe Creation with a condescending gaze from afar; and if Thompson had written about an analogous event, it undoubtedly would have been apocalyptically-tinged (or at the very least psychedelically-shaded). In a sense, the closest New Journalistic ancestor of this essay is Terry Southern’s 1963 Esquire piece “Twirling at Ole Miss.” Sullivan, too, has a propensity for the comically absurd, or as Southern puts it in “Twirling,” “one of those incredible bits of irony which sometimes do occur in life, but are never suitable for fiction.” “Upon This Rock” is infused with such “incredible bits” — for instance, when Sullivan recounts this scene while driving in to Creation:
Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn. I understand where you might be coming from in doubting that. Nevertheless it is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram’s horn, quite capably, twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.
As the essay unfolds, Sullivan becomes fully immersed in the “born-again” crowd, and the remembered past takes him in the opposite direction, spawning a recollection of his own “high school ‘Jesus phase.'” The admission cuts sharply against the characteristically derisive voice of the New Journalism, and of most contemporary magazine writing. And it severs even deeper when the memory — compounded by a festival goer who dies at his feet from a heart attack — becomes almost too much for him to bear: “I went back to the trailer and had, as the ladies say where I’m from, a colossal go-to-pieces.”
The Southern past is also at the heart of Sullivan’s first book, Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportwriter’s Son (2004). There, he offers up a multi-pronged narrative, including an off-kilter history of horse racing, a jaunt through Kentucky culture, and a moving memoir of his relationship with his late father, a sportswriter for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. As Sullivan records in the work — which was the outgrowth of a 2002 essay he wrote for Harper’s — he was born in Kentucky and quickly uprooted to the Midwest. But a devotion to the South remained:
I had a yearning, very early on, to belong to Lexington, and when my geographical history became too convoluted to afford an obvious “hometown” (born in Louisville; childhood in southern Indiana; high school in Ohio; college in Tennessee), it was a great relief in the end, just to be able to tell people, “I’m from Kentucky,” a state in which I have never actually lived.
This identification with the South — its debased charms and moving contradictions — spills over into Pulphead. In the essay “Mr. Lytle,” Sullivan writes, “I was under the tragic spell of the South, which either you’ve felt or you haven’t. In my case it was acute because, having grown up in Indiana with a Yankee father, a child exile from Kentucky roots of which I was overly proud, I’d long been aware of a faint nowhereness to my life.” In this story, Sullivan resurrects the Tennessee author Andrew Nelson Lytle, then the last surviving member of the collective of writers and artists known as the Southern Agrarians. “Bear in mind that by the mid-nineties, when I knew him,” Sullivan says about once serving as Lytle’s apprentice-cum-caretaker, “the so-called Southern Renascence in letters had mostly dwindled to a tired professional regionalism.”
One of the essay’s more extraordinary effects is the way it allows readers to lose track of whether they’re reading memoir or a short story — and whether that matters. Sullivan crafts a picture of Lytle’s complexities and, despite his faults, the lessons hidden within them:
The manner in which I related to him was essentially anthropological. Taking offense, for instance, to his more or less daily outbursts of racism, chauvinism, anti-Semitism, class snobbery, and what I can only call medieval nostalgia, seemed as absurd as debating these things with a caveman. Shut up and ask him what the cave art means.
Sullivan’s obsession with questioning the South’s enigmatic artifacts persists in “Unnamed Caves,” an essay about Native American prehistoric cave art that’s mostly being rediscovered in middle Tennessee. It’s a fascination that serves his sensibility well, as he’s a first-rate observer of things that can’t immediately, if ever, be deciphered. While dwelling in an undisclosed cavern with an archaeologist named Jan Simek, a “thick-chest guy in his fifties — bushy dark hair mixed with iron gray, sportsman’s shades,” Sullivan doesn’t ascribe meaning to the “weird paddle-handed creatures with long wavy arms,” but rather illuminates the ancient wall portraits’ incongruities:
I began to feel that I was inside a hallucination, not that I was hallucinating myself-I was working very hard, in that cramped space, to write down Jan’s few cryptic remarks-but that I was experiencing someone else’s dream, which had been engineered for me, or rather not for me but for some other, very different people to progress through. It may have been shamanic.
Likewise, in “Unknown Bards,” a refreshing exegesis on the threadbare subject of the blues, Sullivan skillfully displays an awareness that he is writing at a time when the lines between high and mass art have broken down. While the result, Sullivan suggests, may be a redefinition of cultural forms, it can also lead to a misunderstanding of both. An expansive piece divided in two sections, it’s a brilliant mingling of criticism, first-person narrative and research-based reporting. Yet he shines best as an enthusiast for the all-but-forgotten blues songs of Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas:
Not many ciphers have left as large and beguiling a presence as Geeshie Wiley’s. Three of the six songs Wiley and Elvie Thomas recorded are among the greatest country-blues performances ever etched into shellac, and one of them, “Last Kind Words Blues,” is an essential work of American art, sans qualifiers, a blues that isn’t blues, that is something other, but is at the same time a perfect blues, a pinnacle.
In the latter part of “Unknown Bards,” Sullivan picks apart Elijah Wald’s Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues and Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues, two blues histories that “seek to deconstruct the legend of the ‘Delta bluesman.” He contends that the fault of both books — indeed, of most blues scholarship — is the failure to recognize that some of the earliest blues performers saw their work as art before tastemakers deemed it so:
We have again to go against our training and suspend anthropological thinking here; it doesn’t serve at these strata. The noble ambition not to be the kind of people who unwittingly fetishize and exoticize black or poor white folk poverty has allowed us to remain the type who don’t stop to ask if the serious treatment of certain folk forms as essentially high- or higher-art forms might have originated with the folk themselves.
When it comes to the cultural history of the region, Sullivan’s thinking on the subject falls in line with the late historian David M. Potter’s suggestion: “The South remains as challenging as it is baffling, which is about as challenging as a subject can be.”
The grotesque is, again, at the center of Sullivan’s thinking about music and pop culture as he sympathetically explores degraded and tragically eccentric subjects. “Michael,” a postmortem analysis of Michael Jackson, remarkably manages to say something new about the late pop singer. The essay starts with Sullivan’s discovery that Jackson’s decision to name his two sons Prince wasn’t as outlandish as it seemed. According to Sullivan, their namesake is Jackson’s great-great grandfather, “an Alabama cotton-plantation slave,” named Prince Screws. “Not to imply that it was above mockery,” he writes, “but of all the things that make Michael unknowable, thinking we knew him is maybe the most deceptive.”
Sullivan refurbishes Jackson’s humanity all the more by reminding readers of his genius. In recounting a sublime performance of “Billie Jean” during a Motown television special, Sullivan contrasts the louder reports of Jackson’s alleged creepiness with how charming and multifaceted he came across in interviews with Ebony and Jet magazines:
During whole stretches of years when the big media were reporting endlessly on his bizarreness and reclusiveness, he was every so often granting these intimate and illuminating sit-downs to those magazines, never forgetting to remind them that he trusted them, would speak only to them. The articles make me realize that about the only Michael Jackson I’ve ever known, personality-wise, is a Michael Jackson who’s defending himself against white people who are passive-aggressively accusing him of child molestation.
Though the popular convention before Jackson’s death was to deem him a “strange, self-mutilated creature” — due in large part to his plastic surgery fixation — Sullivan suggests that perhaps Jackson was perfectly content with his metamorphosis: “We moan that Michael changed his face out of self-loathing. He may have loved what he became.”
In another profile, this time of Axl Rose, Sullivan mixes his knack for honing in on the grotesque with what Gay Talese calls “the fine art of hanging out.” And like Talese in his landmark 1966 Esquire story, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” — in which he captures the quintessence of the singer by not getting a sit-down with Sinatra — Sullivan constructs a write-around that’s so successful in its insights that it’s hard to envision an interview with the reclusive Guns N’ Roses front man that would have been more revealing. When the essay originally ran in GQ in 2006, Rose had not released a record in more than a decade, and was incessantly tinkering with the album Chinese Democracy. He was viewed at the time, according to Sullivan, as “an almost Howard Hughes-like character — only ordering in.”
While Sullivan attends Rose’s “third of the four comeback shows in New York,” he saliently captures the peculiar changes in the singer’s appearance since his Appetite for Destruction prime:
To me he looks like he’s wearing an Axl Rose mask. He looks like a man I saw eating by himself at a truck stop in Monteagle, Tennessee, at two o’clock in the morning about twelve years ago. He looks increasingly like the albino reggae legend Yellowman. His mane evokes a gathering of strawberry red intricately braided hempen fibers, the sharply twisted ends of which have been punched, individually, a half inch into his scalp. His chest hair is the color of a new penny. With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster inPredator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet.
Yet these “grotesqueries de trop” are tenderized by Sullivan’s account of the way Rose’s hometown, Lafayette, Indiana, at once shaped and probably continues to haunt Rose, and, moreover, how unusual it was that he even escaped the “most nowhere part of America.” Sullivan advises: “That’s where he’s from. Bear that in mind.”
In “Mr. Lytle,” Sullivan describes how his college roommate considered Lytle a “grotesquerie and a fascist” — largely for once uttering: “Life is melodrama. Only art is real.” Sullivan, conversely, says he was less disturbed by Lytle’s aphorism, which may partly explain Sullivan’s attraction to reality television. In “Getting Down to What is Really Real,” a reported essay about a few former cast members of MTV’s The Real World, reality programs are set up as a go-to medium for seeking out truths about the bawdy side of the human condition:
People hate these shows, but their hatred smacks of denial. 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.
What Sullivan tells us about contemporary life is that the thin line between spectator and participant has broken down:
There are simply too many of them — too many shows and too many people on the shows on the shows — for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.
This same imaginative interpretation, mirth, and affection is present when Sullivan writes about yet another elusive subject, the reggae legend Bunny Wailer, and also when he’s recalling his musician brother’s near death experience from being shocked by a microphone. (Reality television seeps into this story as well, with Sullivan noting that the accident was featured in an episode of the William Shatner-hosted program Rescue 911.) These traits also show up in a piece about Constantine Rafinesque, the peculiar nineteenth-century explorer and naturalist who left his motherland of France to explore America’s southeast. Rafinesque’s “beautiful human brain” was hindered by the limitations of his age — as certainly as ours are presently. Sullivan writes: “We do well to draw a lesson of humility from this. It’s the human condition to be confused. No other animal ever had an erroneous thought about nature. Who knows what our version of the six-thousand-year-old earth is.” And they’re present in “American Grotesque,” a story in which the author bounces from a Tea Party rally in Washington D.C. to an investigation of the death of a census worker to his own lobbyist cousin. This is the real strength of all 14 works in the collection: the sense that where they conclude, and all the zigzagging asides along the way, weren’t predetermined.
Elizabeth Hardwick, another Kentucky native and a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, once said of the essay: “I have a great affection for the form and have given to it everything and more than would be required in fiction, that is, everything I possibly could. I have always written essays as if they were examples of imaginative writing, as I believe them to be.” In Sullivan’s work we find this same care for the form and an understanding of its possibilities; Pulphead is a cohesive, masterful collage of subjects that can’t help but beg re-examination. Likewise, Sullivan’s is an original voice we’ll want to hear again.