Pulphead: Despatches from the Other Side of America - review

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

The Mississippi river flowing through Yazoo County
The Mississippi river flowing through Yazoo County. Photograph: Getty Images

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