Pulphead, essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 369 pages ($16 paperback original). John Jeremiah Sullivan wastes no time telling you that he's not in the business of giving us "toe-tap J-school foolishness." He was assigned to cover the Cross-Over Christian rock festival in the Ozarks. He initially thought, "I'd stand at the edge of the crowd and take notes on the scene, chat up the occasional audience member then flash my pass to get backstage, where I'd rap with the artists themselves. The singer could feed me his bit about how all music glorifies HIM, when it's performed with a loving spirit and I'd jot down every tenth word, inwardly smiling. Later that night I might sneak some hooch in my rental car and invite myself to lie with a prayer group by their fire, for the fellowship of it. Fly home. Stir in the statistics. Paycheck."
But no. "I wanted to know what these people are, who claim to love this music, who drive hundreds of miles, traversing states, to hear it live." The result is his essay "Upon This Rock," the first in "Pulphead." Before he's finished, his subjects will include a shelter after Katrina, his 92-year-old collegiate mentor -- Southern agrarian novelist and critic Andrew Lytle, his brother's electrocution, Axl Rose and Michael Jackson, tea partyers, 19th century "botanist, naturalist, geologist, etc." Constantine Rafinesque, obscure blues singers Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, "the baroque aestheticization of early black Southern music by white men," and one of Bob Marley's Wailers among others.
You can't reinvent the '60s advent of Tom Wolfe in the 21st century. Nor can you rattle journalism's mausoleum anymore with red-eyed "new journalism" manifestos proclaiming the rights of writers to use first-person pronouns despite corporatist verbotens. But what you can do is come up with a Southern essayist and journalist so good, so astute, so original and so very much himself that he seems like deliverance itself from all the hackeries people increasingly deplore. Which is why this was one of the most praised books of 2011.
-- Jeff Simon