Pulphead: Essays

11Feb12

It’s as enjoyable as it is reassuring to discover an excellent book of essays like this one. Enjoyable because Sullivan is an engaging writer who collects interesting magazine work here, and reassuring to see books like this are still published, marketed, bought and read. The book begins with “Upon This Rock,” as Sullivan spends a few days at a Christian rock festival. The youth he meets could have been dismissed or parodied, but Sullivan is a more thoughtful writer than that, taking the time to try and illustrate them. Some of his other topics (reality TV stars and well-fed, angry conservatives are among them) would have been similarly easy to harpoon, but also get a more fleshed-out portrayal. In the world of these essays, people are complex, slightly sad, and possibly misleading themselves in some way. Sounds like someone I know. Wait, sounds like humanity.

There’s a great moment I reread several times in “Mr Lytle: An Essay.”  As a young man, Sullivan lived with and helped care for an elderly writer, Andrew Lytle. “About once a day he’d say, ‘I may do a little writing yet, myself, if my mind holds.’” Sullivan describes taking a sneak look at a single sentence Lytle left on his typewriter and finding it a stunningly smooth, perfect sentence that captured a moment of horror suddenly transformed into joy. “What he could still do, in his weakness, I couldn’t do. I started listening harder, even when he bored me.”

It isn’t enough to call it an overall theme for the collection, but several of the essays – “Unnamed Caves” and “Unknown Bards” – involve the incredible flukes of chance that go into the destruction or preservation of culture. In the second of the two, Sullivan participates in the process of trying to research and preserve some of the earliest blues recordings. He details a remarkably rare 78 found at a yard sale of some kind by a collector (what are the odds of that?), but the record was so warped it looked like a bowl. By pure chance, the collector was the sort of person who knew what to do: “He took it home and placed it outside between two panes of clear glass – collector’s wisdom, handed down – and allowed the heat of the sun and the slight pressure of the glass’s weight slowly to press it flat again, to where he could play it.”

Sullivan is a skilled writer, which makes it a little frustrating he sometimes works unnecessarily hard to be appealing to the reader. For the sake of adding charm, he includes the false starts and backtracking that comes with conversation (Guns N’ Roses “were grotesque and crass and stupid sometimes, even most of the time. Even almost all of the time”). But a writer that’s already perceptive, interesting and accessible doesn’t need to do that. If you can make language sit up and dance, you don’t need to give any thought to how much the reader likes you. It’s most noticeable at the end of an essay on increasing reports of animal violence worldwide. The reports are disturbing and numerous: Elephants are killing higher numbers of people and are now raping rhinoceroses, “something that is evidently just as startling to zoologists as to the layperson.” The stories go on: a pack of 200 dogs worked together to attack a town in Albania, and even “attacks of dolphins on humans are noticeably up.”

It seems likely that increased animal anxiety – not to mention shockingly coordinated attacks on humans – suggest early warning signs we’re overpopulating the planet to the point that nature itself is fighting back. It’s all fascinating and alarming stuff, but the essay is given the unfortunate, somewhat flippant title “Violence of the Lambs,” and Sullivan works very hard to get the reader to laugh it off at the end, creating a comical scenario of all-out war between humans and animals. But it’s the moment to suggest we change our ways and stop encroaching on animal territory, not the moment for a verbal tap dance to amuse the reader. Sullivan seems to want to distance himself from the potential seriousness of his own essay.

But ultimately, these are niggling concerns, given that the reader frequently sails along with Sullivan’s engaging prose without distraction. And as Pulphead has already had a number of very positive reviews, perhaps a second collection from Sullivan will take a somewhat more unapologetic tone.

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