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Performing the Post-Postmodern

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 4, May/June 2013
pp. 14-15 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0064

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Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, which had its roots in the counterculture of the late 1960s, was by anyone’s reckoning a major turning point in American non-fiction writing. By persistently foregrounding his half-stoned, half-paranoid persona, by provoking events in order to write about them, and by throwing in fictional gags and characters, Thompson reset the whole notion of journalistic objectivity in a postmodern mode. Following William Faulkner’s dictum that “fiction is often the best fact,” Thompson created a style that was in complete synch with the counterculture irony of the time. You knew that what he was actually writing wasn’t necessarily true in factual terms, but you knew that his attitude was. The “real” story was that you could participate vicariously in trashing the Establishment without the Establishment ever quite getting a handle on what was going on. Thompson’s half-simulated, half-real manic persona was a signal case of the medium becoming the message.

When viewed in purely formal terms, Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection of essays “from the other side of America,” seems at first to be a stylistically refined continuation of Thompson’s journalistic technique minus the fear and loathing and chronic substance abuse. Although Sullivan’s overall attitude doesn’t have much in common with gonzo journalism—he is much too good-natured an observer—he nonetheless makes liberal use of the devices pioneered by Thompson. Sullivan is always personally involved in the things he writes about, individual pieces occasionally segue into long autobiographical flashbacks, and in one (“Violence of the Lambs”), Sullivan goes so far as to make up a character entirely—something which we are informed of only at the last possible moment. His introductory sentences often read more like the opening lines of short stories than journalism (“It was maybe an hour before midnight at the Avalon Nightclub in Chapel Hill, and the Miz was feeling nervous”) or are blatantly self-referential (“Last year I was asked to write a magazine story about the future of the human race”). Three of the pieces are directly autobiographical: he writes about the near-fatal electrocution of his brother, how he rented his house out to a popular TV series, and about a trip to Disney World. Other subject matter is gleaned from the grotesque, “other side of America” that is touted in the book’s subtitle (he interviews people who rob Native-American burial mounds, and he crashes a Christian rock concert), from pop culture (the reality TV series Real World) and rock (Michael Jackson, Axl Rose, and the last living member of the Wailers). There is also some political reporting on the Tea Party movement and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. All this comes across to us in a prose style that uses slangy English and pop-culture jargon in a way that sounds casual but that is also nuanced, pointed, and profound. It’s the kind of style that’s so good it makes you instantly envious because you realize you can’t write it yourself.

What makes Sullivan really special—apart from the sheer virtuosity of his prose—is that his seemingly flip, unrelentingly self-referential kind of writing continually sets you up for elevating, indeed almost spiritual experiences. Even when he is writing about grotesquely misguided people like the burial mound robbers, pop-culture phenomenoms like Michael Jackson, or puerile West Virginians at a Christian rock concert, Sullivan in the end manages to bring them across as dignified and uplifting in spite of their ludicrous, off-putting, or simply bizarre behavior. A good example is “Upon this Rock,” his coverage of a Christian rock concert and the first piece in the book. There are loads of things to be snarky about at such an event, and Sullivan’s pop-culture-savvy persona can’t resist remarks like “Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one that I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself,” or describing in some detail the “pretty accomplished freaks” that attend the concert. But while you’re enjoying what seems to be a sarcastic send-up of pious yokels, Sullivan suddenly shifts into a serious, autobiographical...

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