I am convinced that anyone who writes in praise of John Jeremiah Sullivan has an ulterior motive. There's no shame or dishonesty in claiming him as "the best essayist of his generation" (Time magazine) or his debut essay collection, Pulphead, as "the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (New York Times Book Review)". These things might very well be true. But to argue on behalf of Sullivan is also to throw your weight behind a kind of journalism that seems perennially perched on the precipice of obsolescence. The kind in which wizened big-city editors with disposable income send a writer - often a would-be or has-been novelist - into the jungle, or to a series of truck stops, or to the Mojave Desert, with no expectation of receiving anything newsworthy, culturally relevant or even necessarily printable in return.
What they're looking for, and opening expense accounts for, is reportage anchored by the sort of observational precision that stops readers in their tracks - a line like Sullivan's judgement, made on the grounds of America's largest Christian Rock festival, that "faith is a logical door which locks behind you". Every journalist wants something like Sullivan's freedom of movement and subject, without admitting to ourselves that we lack his perspicacity, his curiosity, and his lyricism. We praise John Jeremiah Sullivan in order to convince ourselves that a career like his is still possible.
Yes, we're envious. The Kentucky-born writer is under 40, he's won numerous awards and The Paris Review seems to have invented the title of "Southern Editor" in order to fix Sullivan's name to the masthead. Though he writes regularly for GQ and Harper's and has started contributing memorably to the New York Times Magazine, the essay subjects in Pulphead seem to reflect nothing more unified than Sullivan's own obscure passions.
It's hard to picture an editor providing a compelling financial justification for sending his journalist to Kingston, Jamaica, to find (and conduct certain small-scale illegal activities with) a reclusive former member of Bob Marley's band. Sometimes he doesn't even need to seek out a story. Where some writers will visit the set of a TV show, Sullivan lets the set come to him, as in Peyton's Place, in which the teenage soap opera One Tree Hill shoots a series of episodes at Sullivan's home in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Needless to say, Sullivan is often the protagonist of his essays, and the seeming impossibility of publishing these stories is sometimes acknowledged directly.
In Violence of the Lambs, an essay commissioned by GQ about the future of the human race, and Sullivan's apparent conviction that it will be decided by large-scale war between man and beast, he writes: "In short, I want you to know that I tried and tried, for months, to write about something other than what I've ended up writing on here, a tangent that popped up early in the research but immediately screamed career-killer and was repeatedly shunted aside ... But as I tried every way I knew to find some legitimate half-truths about the future for you to read about on your flight to Dallas or wherever your loved ones live - and I do suggest you visit them soon, as in this year, I really do - the problem became that people who make a profession of thinking seriously about the future won't really tell you anything that isn't cautious, hedged, and quadruple-qualified, because as I came slowly to comprehend and deal with, no one knows what's going to happen in the future."
Direct address, earnest delivery, admissions of having "tried", run-on sentences: David Foster Wallace is the obvious progenitor here. Last year, Sullivan penned a heartfelt review of Wallace's posthumous The Pale King in GQ, noting that "he was one of those writers who, even when you weren't sounding like him, made you think about how you weren't sounding like him". Which does, yes, sound a little bit like him. Sullivan doesn't have a similar overarching moral or literary project; he's looser, less punctilious, more shaggy-dog storyteller than intimidating genius. Pulphead is titled after a Norman Mailer coinage, but unlike Mailer's generational cohort of New Journalists, Sullivan is too unpretentious to goad his prose into devouring (or defining) our Grand Cultural Moment. Surprisingly, the book's least essential pieces are the ones most tethered to current events, confronting ready-made journalistic touchstones like Hurricane Katrina and the Tea Party. Sullivan's off-kilter brand of social anthropology thrives when he selects a more unlikely topic.