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Pulphead: Despatches from the Other Side of America - review

Olivia Laing reviews a song of praise to the body of America.

Pulphead: Despatches from the Other Side of America
John Jeremiah Sullivan
Vintage, £9.99

Journalists love to claim their despatches come from the Other Side, out there in the shadowy badlands, far from the metropolis. Usually the word is straight code for slumming: Hunter S Thompson putting on his biker’s leathers, Truman Capote hanging out at Garden City jail, Joan Didion peering through oversized sunglasses at the bloated corpse of the Summer of Love. What makes John Jeremiah Sullivan – the mellifluously named heir-apparent of American magazine journalism – unusual is that he’s not playing at de haut en bas tourism.

In a witty profile of the Guns n’ Roses frontman, Axl Rose, he describes their shared home state of Indiana as “nowhere”, a void in “the blood-soaked jigsaw puzzle that is this country’s regional scheme”. Later, Sullivan collars the reader with the appealingly folksy decla - ration: “I don’t know how it is where you are, but in the South, where I live . . .” He is not always charmed by the things he encounters, but he never lets you forget that he’s calling from home.

For the past decade, Sullivan has been on a grand tour, exploring the facets of America from Disneyworld and Hurricane Katrina to the Tea Party and the blues. Pulphead is an assemblage of artefacts, some ancient and some so new that most spectators would struggle to contextualise them. Laid out on the page, they converge to build a kind of Magic Eye portrait of a nation that seems lethally at odds with itself.

His kinship with people more commonly regarded with suspicion by the bicoastal intelligentsia makes for disarming reading. Take the opening essay, a report from Creation, a Christian rock festival. Sullivan is briefly mistaken for a paedophile before he almost crushes tens of God-loving tweens when the brakes fail on his monstrous 29-foot motorhome. He is rescued by a bunch of hard-boiled rural types, with whom he spends the next few days eating frogs and smoking pot. So far, so gonzo.

Then the confession slips out: “My problem is not that I dream I’m in hell . . . It’s that I love Jesus Christ. ‘The latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.’ He was the most beautiful dude.” The archaism latchet is undoubtedly part of the appeal – linguistic richness of all kinds is an abiding preoccupation – yet it is hard to think of any other writer on either side of the Atlantic who could make a statement of such sincere devotion, never mind sound cool – Cat Stevens cool, anyhow – while he does it.

The desire to break out of the confining jacket of irony is part of a trend in recent American journalism, spearheaded in different ways by the magazines n+1and the Believer. At its worst, it signifies a retreat into whimsy and naivety. There is little of that here. Sullivan’s bonhomie, his likeable liking, forms the surface trapping of a grander project: a desire to contextualise modern American culture and social practices within the long parade of history. So we have the following extraordinary trill of praise, directed at Axl Rose’s dancing. “What Axl does is lovely, I’m sorry. If I could, I would be doing that as I walk to the store. I would wake up and dance every morning like William Byrd of Westover, and that would be my dance.”

I’m willing to bet that this is the only time William Byrd, the founder of Richmond, Virginia, and Axl Rose have coexisted in a sentence. The same long range is on display in an astonishingly tender and redeeming account of Michael Jackson, which begins by introducing the Alabama slave Prince Screws, Jackson’s great-great-grandfather whom the pop star honoured when naming his firstborn.

Some of the ghosts unearthed here are hard to dispel. In “Unnamed Caves”, Sullivan describes crawling beneath Tennessee through karst caves decorated with thousands of years of Native American art: woodpeckers, warrior eagles, a crown mace. Later, he seeks out the local people who have been excavating illegally, and who are themselves haunted by the caves’ enigmatic contents.

This urge towards recovery recurs in “Unknown Bards”, an essay that circles around a scene from Sullivan’s past. Once, while working as a magazine fact-checker, he spent a night driving around Oxford, Mississippi, trying to decipher a single word in a song called “Last Kind Word Blues”. The process of retrieval – he gets it in the end – is about the most thrilling thing I’ve read all year.

There are bum notes, naturally – a stoner’s trip to Disneyland drags and a presumably tongue-in-cheek account of animal attacks on human beings is bafflingly bizarre. On the whole, though, this is electric fare: a song of praise to the body of America, from someone who dwells right there.

Olivia Laing is the author of “To the River” (Canongate, £8.99). Pulphead: Despatches from the Other Side of America is published by Vintage, £9.99


This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide