The essay is a satisfying literary form. Especially when the essayist takes on subjects you’re familiar with, but not deeply schooled in. Like (for me, anyway) Axl Rose. Which is why I started reading the essay, even though I lack any actual interest in the musican or his work.
I’m not through reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s culture-landscape essays in Pulphead yet, (and I’m a bit ticked that the book does not reveal where these articles originally appeared) but it’s good enough to keep me starting the next essay and the next. The publisher calls it “A sharp-eyed, uniquely humane tour of America’s cultural landscape” and I agree.
What stopped me in my reading and dragged me to “True Stories Well Told” is Sullivan’s essay “The Final Comeback of Axl Rose,” which he opens with a riff on Rose’s home, Indiana.
Now some who follow my memoir excerpts on this blog might think I’m a bit down on Indiana. Now I can respond “oh yeah? That’s nothing compared to Sullivan!”
What’s the most nowhere part of America? The Midwest, right? But once you get into the Midwest, you find that each of the different nowherenesses has laid claim to its own somewhereness. There are the lonely plains in Iowa. In Michigan there’s a Gordon Lightfoot song. Ohio has its very blandness and averageness, faintly comical, to cling to. All of them have something. But now I invite you to close your eyes, and when I say “Indiana” … blue screen, no? And we are speaking only of Indiana generally, which includes southern Indiana, where I grew up, and northern Indiana, which touches a Great Lake. We have not even narrowed it down to central Indiana. Central Indiana? That’s like, “Where are you?” I’m nowhere. “Go there.”
We used to call Indianapolis “End-a-noplace” — from Sullivan’s riff you can infer why.
An overarching theme of my early life was the depressing belief that an interesting story simply could not be made from Indiana material. How would I ever rise to become an interesting person, much less an outstanding talent, when I came from these cornfields, stuck with nothing on the horizon but a dumb joke about being “out standing in my field”?
I got over it. I got out of there. I’ve even tried to stop dissing it, to believe in Indiana’s potential, the potential of those who live and work dream and write there.
But I still got a good laugh out of Sullivan’s take on our shared homeland.
Other essays that worked for me (“worked” defined here as “effortlessly gave me some new insight or thought-problem to muse on”) include “Michael”, about Michael Jackson, and “At a Shelter (After Katrina)”.
“Michael” makes and then unpacks the proposition that “It’s odd to write about a person knowing he may have been, but not if he was, a serial child molester.” He lays out Michael’s history compassionately, starting with
His eldest brothers had at one time been children who dreamed of child stardom. Michael never knows this sensation. By the time he achieves something like self-awareness, he is a child star. The child star dreams of being an artist.
Reasonable hypotheses for his actions and interests over the years unfold. Then comes the question of his final years–the serial plastic surgeries, the serial child molestations (maybe). Sullivan presents two completely believable scenarios based on different biographies, well-interpreted in Sullivan’s clear and colorful prose:
But when you put on the not-so glasses and watch, and see Michael protesting his innocence…dammit if the whole life doesn’t look a lot different. There appears to exist a nondismissible chance that Michael was some kind of martyr.
Another Hoosier, another life created from the raw material of Indiana…whoever you were, Michael, well done.
“At a Shelter (After Katrina)” presents direct observations and character sketches that feed our need to bear witness to incomprehensible suffering. The conclusion of that essay is truly chilling, an evocation of a Mad Max-style experience buying gas. Sullivan waits, lined up for hours with the desperate, earning the brunt of a fellow sufferer’s road rage through an awkward merge.
In the end I rolled up my window and blasted the music, and he melted away. There was no option, for either of us. The gas got me to more gas. But I was thinking, the whole rest of the wait, this is how it would start, the real end of the world. The others in their cars, instead of just staring, would have climbed out and joined him. It would be nobody’s fault.
Wit, energy, compassion… good reading, Pulphead.