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John Jeremiah Sullivan
FSG Originals, 2011
369 pp., $16.00
John Jeremiah Sullivan is hot stuff right now. Still several years shy of 40, he is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, contributing editor at Harper's, and southern editor of The Paris Review. In a New Yorker piece last December called "Reality Effects," it was Sullivan's remarkable essay collection, Pulphead, that James Wood used as a springing-off point to proclaim that the American magazine essay is entering a sort of renaissance. Sullivan may be a new voice, but he's becoming an important influence on an emerging generation of essayists and critics.
True, it's hard to ignore the similarities between him and the late David Foster Wallace. Both found success early in their careers. Both have an uncanny knack for the perfect adverb. And both have voices which are whimsical and ironic—but Sullivan is less self-consciously postmodern than Wallace; he sheds some of Wallace's slightly-too-twee bits (and copious footnotes) and adds a little southern grit.
Though he's almost always writing in the first person, Sullivan skillfully varies his narrative tacks in Pulphead. In "Upon this Rock," Sullivan is the main character: he goes on a reporting trip to Creation, the Christian rock festival, where an encounter with the band Petra propels him back to his teens. In a piece at the end of the book, Sullivan recounts the weird experience of living in a house frequently used as a location for a TV show. Other essays include profiles of individuals ("The Last Wailer," about Bunny Wailer, major influence on Bob Marley) or groups ("Unknown Bards," about old bluegrass singers); second-person pieces that address the reader and the author ("Michael," about Michael Jackson); stories that play a little fast and loose with the truth ("Violence of the Lambs"); and esoteric histories ("La•Hwi•Ne•Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist," about Constantine Rafinesque, gadfly naturalist and explorer). Sullivan's prose (rapid, conversational, and speckled ...