The Short Version: A collection of idiosyncratic essays pitched as storytelling, mostly about this strange and varied land we call America. Profiles of Axl Rose and Michael Jackson butt up against stories of more-than-a-little-loony naturalists and dying Old Southern writers while a odyssey into a Christian rock festival and the experience of having one’s house turned into a TV show set bookend the whole thing. The overall sensation is one of humor, awe, and a little bit of communal understanding – something we’re all in need of, in these dark days.
The Review: I’ve been a subscriber to The New Yorker for going on ten years now. I’ve watched it shrink in size, even as the profiles and articles have individually remained lengthy and demanding. As sites like Longreads have popped up, it has been easier for me to find articles in other magazines I don’t subscribe to – but I’m always thankful to find an essayist (a rare term in our modern age) that I haven’t read before whose writing assures me that the long-form, well-researched, well-written non-fiction text is not dead.
John Jeremiah Sullivan is such a writer.
The book begins before you’ve even opened it, with the evocative cover: this is a late-summer roadtrip of a book, just as the chill of fall is vaguely starting to creep into the back of the breeze. And Sullivan is a raconteur, pitching his tales (for that they are, in a way) in a uniquely American voice. There’s a mix, as Wally Shawn might say, of the highbrow and the lowbrow here – a combination of both sides of that particular coin. Sullivan, who has Southern roots and whose possibly most famous essay (included here) sees him ‘apprenticed’ to Andrew Lytle, is a bit of a Southern gentleman but he’s also not afraid to get into a scrap or two. The funniest essay – and also possibly most dated, which is saying something considering it isn’t that old – sees him partying with a former reality star from The Real World, but then he delivers a more elegiac (and over-long) essay about a wacky, semi-discredited naturalist from the 1800s. There’s an American ability to be both sides of a paradox in Sullivan’s writing and it’s what makes the book so dynamic.
The centerpieces of the book, to me – and I would wager that every reader will have an equally valid and differing opinion on what they think to be the centerpiece(s) – are the sibling essays about two larger-than-life music icons: Michael Jackson and Axl Rose. You could not, I don’t think, pick two more dissimilar individuals – and yet Sullivan makes it seem like the most natural thing in the world. He’s writing about Michael after his death and he pulls off the most amazing thing: he made me reconsider how I listen to his music. We’re all Michael fans in one way or another – “no one can resist the evil of the Thriller” – but it’s worth remembering in the wake of his myriad personal and legal problems that he was an unstoppable creative force. The image of Michael in the studio, picked out by a single light on the microphone, weaving in and out to record his parts… it sends a shiver down my spine, the way Sullivan writes it. Similarly, the way he talks about Axl’s various “voices” – here’s a guy who gets the almost indescribable thing of artistic expression and then manages to wrestle it into a few easy sentences. For any musicians reading it, it’s impossible not to sense that this guy gets it.
He’s also just a terrifically witty and personable writer. He calls Richard Branson “that weird and whispery mogul-faun” – which, I mean, is there any better description? – and made me laugh, heartily, several more times within just the first few stories. His writing style reveals his training – as a writer of fiction – and there are times that the stories read almost like, well, stories. One story in particular, “Violence of the Lambs”, read like something out of a pitch for a new sci-fi thriller – and while he reveals at the end that there are significant portions of the essay that are, in fact, fictionalized, the scarier thing is that they’re intertwined with the pieces that are true – woven together and nearly indistinguishable from each other. There’s a question to be asked about the journalistic bait-and-switch here – but I’m willing to overlook it, because Sullivan has used his powers for good: he’s planted the seed of an idea and pushed the reader to look further and discover more for themselves. And if he was a little too sensationalist in that story, consider that he succeeds in achieving the same effect in “Unnamed Caves”, which sent me down a several-hours-long rabbit hole of internet research about just how little we know regarding the traditions, religions, and lives of the Native Americans anywhere North of Mayan territory. It made me want to go find some of these caves myself, to see for myself these strange and still mostly inexplicable drawings. And yet I felt as though I had seen them: Sullivan is that good.
The only flaw in this collection is that too much of a good thing can become overwhelming. His profile of Rafinesque was the turning point for me: interesting, no doubt, but overlong and I started to feel overly sated on the feast of Sullivan’s prose. I had to put the book down for nearly a day and come back to it, in order to truly derive the same pleasure from the last four essays as I had from the earlier ones. But trimming this collection down might’ve also taken away a crucial part of the polyphonic tapestry that the book has become – each story subtly connected to the others, in an almost short-story-novel-esque refractory way.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. I can’t go the whole way because, well, I was a bit bored during the Rafinesque essay. There’s no way around it – and even our favorite writers can present us with something less-than-wonderful. But these essays are fierce examinations of our modern existence – funny and observant in the mode of Hunter S. Thompson but so much more sympathetic to the subject. Sullivan believes in his subjects, in their fundamental quirky humanity – because, I suspect, he’s well aware of his own. It makes the book and the essays included feel that much more truthful, that much more “accurate” – and vaults Sullivan right to the top of the list of essayists I will always read.