Jim Agee: tall, darkly handsome. Prematurely melancholy in a manner both pretentious seeming and deeply real. A great talker, a great (which is to say, bad) drinker, an expert at accentuating or cloaking his southern roots, as occasion demanded. Possessed of as much talent—if by ‘talent’ we mean sheer wattage of verbal combination—as anyone in his generation, a talent that he was on his way either to wasting, if you hold with his latter-day detractors, or to fulfilling, in some necessarily fractured way.
"These thoughts begin, for most of us, typically, in childhood, when we are making eye contact with a pet or wild animal. I go back to our first family dog, a preternaturally intelligent-seeming Labrador mix, the kind of dog who herds playing children away from the street at birthday parties, an animal who could sense if you were down and would nuzzle against you for hours, as if actually sharing your pain. I can still hear people, guests and relatives, talking about how smart she was. “Smarter than some people I know!” But when you looked into her eyes—mahogany discs set back in the grizzled black of her face—what was there? I remember the question forming in my mind: can she think? The way my own brain felt to me, the sensation of existing inside a consciousness, was it like that in there?”
- John Jeremiah Sullivan on animal consciousness
"After dinner, I made the mistake of saying something about a cigar. It wasn’t as if I asked for one. I probably said something like, ‘I hear that your country is famous for its cigars.’ But they took this as an overpolite way of asking for one, so the hunt began. The shops were closed, but the Rafaels started working on the car. You’ve heard, no doubt, how in Cuba they still drive working American cars from the 1950s, but this was something else, a Frankenstein made from the parts of about four different cars from the ’50s and one Russian car apparently from the ’70s. They got this creature going, and we started moving through the streets. No headlights — one of them held an electric lantern out the window. It was wired to the cigarette lighter. We needed it badly. Within a mile of leaving the town, we were in the face-close darkness of unlighted rural roads. They took me to a kind of kiosk, an open bar in the middle of a field. I don’t know what it was, really. A kind of club. All of the men, about seven of them, were workers in the tobacco fields. They would smuggle out a cigar or two each week, maybe defective ones, for personal use or the chance to trade it away. Rafelito told me, ‘This is the puro puro.”
- Where Is Cuba Going? by John Jeremiah Sullivan
A good writer wants from us — or has no right to ask more than — intelligence, good faith and time.
Failure is quite interesting, and it’s something I have a certain amount of experience with. I wasn’t a failure in the way lots of people are…
This should be done. By all. Nick will be there, and he’d love to meet you, dear readers!
For an Irish person, it’s always there, the way it is for, say, a Cuban. To be Irish is to make up your mind about whether or not to leave Ireland.
“That something is in part what draws travelers to the Aran Islands: it takes an independent character to live perversely on three spits of barren limestone in the north Atlantic, the way they do, in a place where you couldn’t even grow spuds unless you created your own sad scrum soil with a kind of layered-kelp composting. If they were to suddenly offer to braid your hair or be smilingly hustling you onto group tours, it would spoil the effect. You go to the Aran Islands expecting to keep a certain distance from the population.”
— John Jeremiah Sullivan, “My Debt to Ireland”
My mother lived in Ireland for two years, and during that time, I visited the Aran Islands thrice. The place is enchanting, but also haunting and savage. The final blip of land before the expanding Atlantic, a land as frozen as it is rocky, where fishermen don’t learn to swim because the water’s too cold anyway. These are some of the pictures I took on Dún Aonghasa. [Nick]
Everywhere and Nowhere
Oh, look! Sorry, things on my to do list, you’re just gonna have to wait until I finish reading this.
ERIC BEEN on John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead
and a conversation with Sullivan by MICHAEL GOETZMAN.Collage Illustration © Lisa Jane Persky
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 2011. 369 pp.
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.”
Now you can drink a “John Jeremiah Sullivan” while you read John Jeremiah Sullivan (or perhaps listen to John Jeremiah Sullivan as he speaks with Wells Tower). John Jeremiah Sullivan. John Jeremiah Sullivan.
Recipe by Danny Nowell of Algonquin Books, Photoshop mock-up by yours truly.