JUST WHEN YOU THINK AMERICA is going down the tubes, you read John Sullivan’s essays (or David Foster Wallace’s, or Rebecca Solnit’s) and you think how strange and varied this country is, how huge and relentless and funny. It has been said that this way of observing American life began with de Tocqueville, but these writers play insider baseball. An outsider looking at America might be charmed with the quirkiness, the scale; or alarmed at the materialism, the cult of celebrity, the fast buck and the nouveau riche. But the insider has more to lose. When John Sullivan and his fledgling family move out of their home each month so that TV crews can use the old North Carolina house to film another segment of One Tree Hill, Sullivan learns the hard way that he has signed a deal with the devil. When his neighbor says, “We don’t have much, but it’s ours,” a complicated chord is struck: passive-aggressive neighbor in one’s personal business + financial fears + privacy and ownership + fascination with celebrity = moral dilemma.
And yet the beauty of these essays (aside from the graceful writing and subtle humor) lies in the fact that Sullivan is not trying to convince us of anything. He’s not trying to sell us anything or claim a moral high ground. He doesn’t actually know what the right thing might be to do in any of these essays. (However, when a night nurse leads him into the hospital room where his brother, who has just been electrocuted by a microphone, lies in vegetative state, and says, “It ain’t like big brother is gonna wake up tomorrow and be all better,” Sullivan knows that was the wrong thing to say. “Had I not seemed shocked enough?” he writes.)
These days, I’m beginning to think, essays are the way to go – the escapist literature that brings us right into the eye of the tornado, where we can safely hide from the frivolous stupidity of so much that passes for cultural discourse today. In that eye, sitting there looking out at Christian rock bands, for example, history collapses into the moment and is light as a feather: “It was late,” Sullivan writes of a Christian rock festival visited by Jews, “and the Jews had sown discord.”
But the true spark, the lightness and the depth, come from the author’s obvious humility. “Fly home,” he writes, describing his role as a magazine journalist surprised by the effect an assignment has on him, “stir in statistics. Paycheck.” Turns out it’s not all about the money after all. I can’t think of a finer revenge on the bean counters.