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 whi...