The Son Shines Bright

Pine Mountain, Kentucky. From panoramio.com

Let’s start this thing how John Sullivan would, if he were writing it. There would be a brisk lede, too conversational to call punchy. The astute reader would already know he was reading someone who has mastered the conventions of magazine journalism so completely that he can’t quite take them seriously. Then, if the lede wasn’t personal, there might be an anecdote about how the piece came about, and even the less astute reader—or, more fairly, the reader who couldn’t care less about the conventions of magazine journalism—would be given a little lesson in authorial motivations. He might hear about the money Sullivan had hoped to earn, or why he wanted to profile someone the reader of, say, a men’s magazine would have every right to think was a waste of pages that could have been filled with pictures of Jessica Alba or spreads of tassel loafers. And Sullivan, modest as ever, would assuage him, and well before the moment when that reader might have given up and turned back to the Alba shots, too few to be really satisfying anyway, he would be persuaded by Sullivan’s apologetic enthusiasm that maybe Axl Rose is still worth 6,000 words, or that Levi Johnston really does say something about the American condition, and he would stick around for a tender portrait of some trivial-seeming shit and come out touched, and feeling a little smarter, a little saner, and a little closer to the unknowable forces that make Americans act the way they do.

So now for the anecdote: I wanted to tear him down. That comes from some silly personal stuff, ranging from how once, at a low point, I wrote him a nice email he didn’t respond to, to the fact that we both grew up across the Ohio River from Kentucky, have been associated with a bunch of the same magazines, and that he’s an older guy who writes stuff very similar to the stuff that I’d like to write. Once we were at a party and he bummed a cigarette from me and was a bit of an asshole about it. But everyone at that party was stoned but me, and in fairness it may just have been that I was mad about missing out on the weed.

And there’s some less personal but still silly annoyance at how the release of Pulphead, his second book, a collection made up entirely of previously published materials, started to look like a cheery hall of fame induction, with the whole literary South proud as one for their new big-time boy. My girlfriend optioned one of the pieces for a major movie studio, and the editor I wrote to about this piece said that even if it was good it was going to be hard to find a home for it, and that even he, whom I knew was at least willing to listen to some of my criticisms, and who’s happy to needle the happy, wasn’t sure he’d be able to do much with it. Of all the friends I talked with about doing a negative review, only one didn’t say something about how it wasn’t the time, or that Sullivan was too nice, or that it wasn’t fair to criticize someone who just writes magazine journalism, and that friend said, “Do it. It’ll make a stir,” the implication being that it would be a kind of game, the needed spice to Sullivan-mania, if someone, even if that person was just bitter, took on an untarnished star. Which, I guess, brings us back to the silly personal stuff.

Then another friend in Texas I hadn’t spoken to in months emailed to say she’d just had lunch with him, that she’d brought me up, and that he’d sounded interested in my stuff about traveling in the south. Then the whole calculus switched. I suddenly thought that writing an aggressive critique of a guy who happens to have a side gig as the Southern Editor of the Paris Review would be the worst thing I could possibly do for myself. So I sent my editor, who didn’t really care one way or the other, a few stalling emails about how I was working on it but having a hard time. I decided that I really had nothing to gain either by doing the piece or by not doing it, and since not doing it took less work I went with that.

But there was something else, and now, absurdly late, here comes the part where I try to persuade you that a guy who writes really well about Levi Johnston (remember him?) for GQ matters to the world, even the world beyond the world of letters, because I hope he thinks he does, or that he could.

For people who have never heard of John Jeremiah Sullivan, or who don’t know what the fuss is about, or who didn’t know about the fuss at all, the thing about him is that he’s a very good popular magazine journalist who has fashioned himself as a Southern writer, and that the South is immensely, perhaps inordinately, proud of its writers.  And as with any writer in the southern belletristic tradition, there’s really no need to look up a bio of him: it’s all in his books or gossip. All of the Pulphead reviews mention that Sullivan was born in Kentucky, which is a little misleading because in his first book, Blood Horses—a book about horses, his dad, and sports writing, but mostly just about Kentucky—you learn that, while he has deep family roots in the state, his parents drove across the Ohio from their home in Southern Indiana to a hospital in Louisville, then drove back to Indiana with the newest Sullivan. You also learn that he moved to Columbus, Ohio when he was 11 and lived there until he finished high school.[1]

From his National Magazine Award-winning essay “Mister Lytle,” you learn that he went, “loving the South as only one who will always be outside it can,” to Sewanee, also known as the University of the South, a small college in Tennessee established just before the Civil War as a local alternative for the sons of the southern Episcopalian elite, who might otherwise go north for finishing. It’s also where the Sewanee Review was founded, in 1892, predating the Southern Renaissance in letters by three decades and helping the new southern literature into national prominence. The school didn’t graduate many kids who went on to literary fame—basically there is William Alexander Percy, better known as Walker’s uncle, and then there is Sullivan—but it was a place that, for a while, attracted adult writers who, like the children of the squirearchy before them, needed an institutional alternative to New England.

Sullivan struggled there, academically and socially, but displayed enough talent to be chosen as the last student assistant of Andrew Nelson Lytle, who was the last major writer of Faulkner’s generation and the last living contributor to I’ll Take My Stand, the Southern Agrarian manifesto that included essays from Robert Penn Warren, Alan Tate, and John Gould Fletcher. Although Sullivan doesn’t talk much about the Agrarians; instead he tells us what it was like to live with, learn from, and be fondled, once, by this grand old man.

Southern writers have often aged into positions in residence at a university, where their personal peculiarities morph into legendary idiosyncrasies and their idiosyncratic work is assured a modest canonicity. Lytle, like, say, Guy Davenport at the University of Kentucky and, until recently, Barry Hannah at Ole Miss, was one of these half-saint, half-mascot writers, and apprenticeship under him must have been an almost unbearable weight for a young writer, especially one who at the time was still trying to become southern. Lytle was in many ways the most agrarian of the Agrarians, believing that literature represents the family and, with mystical conviction, that the family takes on a special predominance in the “mild climate and over the alluvial soils” of the southern paysage. He was also, as far as I know, the last major writer who claimed the Civil War wasn’t about slavery and unironically used the word “Christendom,” as he did so often you could make a drinking game out of it, working through his essays.[2]

So Sullivan was the last student of the last literary link to a landed, autochthonal southern worldview that was almost gone by the fifties, to say nothing of 1995, when Lytle died. You learn from the Middle Tennessee writer William Gay, reviewing Pulphead for the Oxford American, that when Gay visited Sewanee five years after Sullivan left “folks were still talking about how talented [Sullivan] was, and regarded him as some sort of prodigy and seemed to expect great things from him,” and you learn again from the essay that Sullivan, the last apprentice, was there when Lytle’s coffin was being made—by hand, of course. Of such things are legends born.

And Sullivan has, at least in the reading South, become a bit of a legend. I’ve never tried to find out how true this story is, but you could, if you went to a certain bar in Memphis and talked to the same drunk who talked to me one night, hear an anecdote about what happened next in Sullivan’s life: how a professor wrote to Marc Smirnoff at the young southern outlet the Oxford American, saying that he just had to hire Sullivan for an editorial position, and how Smirnoff said he wasn’t comfortable hiring anyone straight out of undergrad but that he’d take him as an intern, and how before the internship was up Sullivan was the magazine’s associate editor (they only have the one.) From the Gay review you could learn that, “like Willie Morris” (another Oxonian grand old man), Sullivan then went north to work at Harper’s, and then he published Blood Horses, which was a modest success, became a contributor at the New York Times Magazine and GQ, and produced many of the essays that make up Pulphead.

From the last piece in the book you learn that he now lives in Wilmington, NC, on the coast, and from an MFA student at the university there who has never met him but knows people who have, you could learn that that he lives in a big house and has a “really cool dude” for an assistant and that the assistant is hard-put because he both works a ton and—again, this may be mythmaking in action—”smokes twenty joints a day.”

This might seem like a lot to know about even a very famous writer, much less someone who has never even tried to transcend the relatively anonymous genre of magazine writing. But it’s important to understand just how proximate writers are down here, in a Kierkegaard-in-Copenhagen sort of way. The South is still a small, close place, if you’re white and middle class and you read and go to parties—sort of like a thousand-mile-wide Boston. I’m writing this at the old Boone Tavern in Berea, Kentucky, and it seems odd to wonder whether Sullivan has ever stayed at this hotel: the proper question is more like, “Did he ever stay in this room?”

One of the many tediums of living in the Deep South involves listening to the probably even true stories of the time the guy next to you at the bar drank with Willie Morris. After a while you stop being surprised at how many people who don’t write, don’t work in publishing, and really, it seems like, ought to care a great deal less, can outline for you the rough contours of Wells Tower, Larry McMurtry, or George Singleton’s life, with a fun drunk anecdote thrown in to make the story worth telling.

That’s not even to mention the cult of Barry Hannah: Everyone knows that he hated Tuscaloosa, that he once shot an arrow at his ex-wife’s front door, and that, with a gun this time, he once shot holes in the floorboards of a running car to drain out some water, or beer, or something, that had pooled there. Last year, at a coffee shop in Central Arkansas, I was trying to persuade a friend of mine to write a piece criticizing Hannah’s last collection, and he hushed me, whispering, “Whatever dude: it could be a good idea, but don’t talk shit about Barry in public. I don’t want there to be trouble.”

There are a couple points to make here. The first is that Sullivan is an authentic anointed one, and that he probably had to deal with all kinds of mental pressure, coming partly from being in the South, and that this must have been compounded by the fact that he is not “really” southern. It’s worth noting that he was anointed totally without the help of a publicity department or the critical groupthink that surrounds him now, because up until 2004 he hadn’t even published a book. Then there’s the fact that, being in the South, he was the best of a relatively weak draft class, and almost anything that a writer as stylistically good—to say nothing of emotionally aware, and all the other talents that people have identified in him over the years—would have been good enough to make him a star down here, and get him fat teaching gigs and conference invites and God knows what else. Maybe a radio show. Finally, now is the place to say that, although Sullivan sometimes seems to be running away from it, he clearly is the best working thinker on the South’s role in today’s America.

The southern thing appeals to everyone, of course, not just southerners, and Sullivan’s southerness has made it easier to argue that his pop journalism is weightier than it first appears. Dwight Garner’s loving Times review almost had to be read with a Hillary-Clinton-campaigning-in-West-Virginia twang it tried so hard to lace the South through all of Sullivan’s pieces. It opened with a metaphor about fried chicken, ended with a Flannery O’Connor quote about the southern ability to identify freaks, called Lytle a “coot,” and implied that because Sullivan’s pieces about Axl Rose and Michael Jackson are portraits of grotesques, they’re “haunted” by what Sullivan has described as the “tragic spell of the South.”

Which they’re not, if you read them outside the context of the book. One of the things that makes Sullivan such a good thinker about the South is that he doesn’t feel bound to think about it all the time. When he does try to force it, the results can be infuriatingly empty, like in his Oxford American piece on Vic Chesnutt, the wheelchair-bound troubadour from Zebulon, Georgia, who claimed to be inspired by Wallace Stevens and Stevie Smith. Sullivan writes, “Letting redneck idioms and speech patterns slip into his lyrics, keeping his songs from taking themselves too seriously,”—here, listen, he’s setting up an appeal to native genius—”Vic paid as close attention to small-town Southern English as Synge did to native Irish, and he too found wonderful things: ‘When the bug hits, that’s the time to scratch it.’” A nonsense line, which could be about painkiller withdrawal, is turned to poetry by the mystique of the small-town South.

Southern writers are always doing that, confusing the nether latitudes for depth. Even the good ones: Barry Hannah’s autobiographical stuff does it, Styron’s nonfiction, especially, does it.  Lytle could write about the South like she was a just-dead lover, beautifully, but leave you stuck outside trying to figure out what he must have been feeling because he assumed too quickly that we’re all enamored just like him. His artistic biography of the Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest feels at times as powerful as reading Tacitus’s Agricola,  Lytle’s obviously intended antecedent. But step away from it for a moment and you realize that you’re reading a book so flawed that its biggest problem has less to do with the historical awkwardness of its ennobling portrait of a man who happened to be the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, or that its judgment of the massacre of freed slave troops, after Forrest took Fort Pillow, was that “there was some private vengeance.” It’s just that hagiographical writing makes bad literature.

Regional art forms are always in danger— from outside influences, but also from internal stultification. When ambition begins to seem pointless or its own point, literature becomes just another craft. That’s what may have happened to the blues, and it’s hard not to think that’s what’s might happen to especially white male Southern literature. Most of the best writing about the South has cold eyes for its setting, even when it has warm eyes for its subjects (Robert Penn Warren’s novel and pieces on the Long brothers, James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men, Kate Chopin, Naipaul’s wonderful southern travelogue, The Confessions of Nat Turner) or cold eyes towards it all, like O’Connor and Hannah’s stories, sometimes, and Shelby Foote in his history of the Civil War.

Sullivan doesn’t actually write all that much on the South, but when he does look at it squarely the perspective can be thrilling, almost impossible to describe, because he’s warm towards everything without descending into foolishness. Take this footnote from his first book, Blood Horses:

My grandparents once had a guest stand and announce that regretfully he was honor-bound to leave the house because my grandfather, who had just inherited a portrait of Col. Milward in the uniform of the aggressor, had decided to hang it in the living room. Kentucky has never entirely gotten over being divided against itself in the war (“brother against brother” was not just a saying there), and with white Lexingtonians who pride themselves on their Southern identity, the fact of the state’s not having seceded can sit somewhat uncomfortably. This is not to imply that they lament the decision, but they sound at times as though they do not quite believe it, the way a left-leaning sixth-generation New Yorker might sound after learning that his great-great-grandfather left home in 1862 just ‘cause he believed in the cause. All of which may account for a tendency among many Lexingtonians to overcompensate in the mint-juleps-on-the-veranda-I-do-declare department.

It’s a deceptively difficult piece of writing. Just to do this footnote he has to appreciate the sensibilities of at least seven different populations: Northern, Western, Appalachian, and Bluegrass Kentuckians (all of whom had broadly different experiences of secession and its aftermath), Lexingtonians in particular, Southerners at large, Northerners at large, pro-Confederate New Yorkers and their descendants in particular, and then wrap them into an anecdote about the dividing question of Southern identity, an anecdote that deals with his own family and puts them symbolically on the side nobody trying to claim Southern roots would, deep down, want them to have been on. Somehow he does this without indicting anyone or forgiving them their affectations. The last writer I can think of to have access to such an intricate, unsentimental, geographic sensitivity was John Kennedy Toole.

I mean sensitivity as in the quality a piece of music rather than a social worker might possess. The point is that if you believe, as Lytle did and Sullivan seems to, that regional cultures and histories can have moral lessons when exploded out for the nation at large, writing meticulously and intelligently about them isn’t just a tool you whip out when you’re doing a travelogue—it’s the basis for a whole literary project. Sullivan seems, too, to have transcended the greatest weakness in Lytle’s nonfiction—the moments when, blinded by affection, he’s not aware enough of his own turf to learn any serious lessons from it.

All of Sullivan’s work, in book form and in popular magazines, can be read as a response to this sentiment, expressed in the second paragraph of Lytle’s family history, A Wake for the Living:

If you don’t know who you are or where you come from you will find yourself at a disadvantage. The ordered slums of suburbia are made for the confusion of spirit. Those who live in units called homes or estates—both words do violence to the language—don’t know who they are. For the profound stress between the union that is flesh and the spirit, they have been forced to exchange the appetites. Each business promotion uproots the family. Children become wayfarers. Few are given any vision of the divine. They perforce become secular men, half men, who inhabit what is left of Christendom.

Take a drink on that last word: The unavoidable fact, reading the two, is that Sullivan really is a much more nuanced thinker than Lytle, and that he’s uniquely capable of taking the questions a sympathetic but contemporary reader might have reading that passage and updating them into a vision by which Americans and Southerners could actually live, and live together. Because that Agrarian vision was never truly meant for the South alone. The longing for a more rooted society Lytle and co. expressed in I’ll Take My Stand extends to the north, to Europe, even beyond Christendom.

While the potential is there for Sullivan to do something like this, Blood Horses is an almost unbelievably unambitious book. It is, and not even Sullivan’s talents can hide it, the work of a professional magazine writer who’s stretching participant-reportage into an excuse to say what he really thinks. (“My year working at a golf course, and what it taught me about class in America!”) There are wonderful and entertaining bits about attending an auction at Keeneland and watching the Derby. But there are also the requisite fascinating asides about the history of the horse and about the colorful characters who populate the business of raising and racing thoroughbreds, and these are tenuously tied to Sullivan’s father, who was a sportswriter and loved racing, and even the story of his father, which is touching and funny and sad, sometimes seems like an excuse to talk about his real subject: Kentucky, Sullivan’s roots there, and the questions posed by his distance from them. It reads like the book you might write if you were burdened with talent, modest and thankful you had only a little to prove, and just a touch cynical about the publishing world and its tropes.

A certain kind of timidity has, in fact, become endemic to the essay as practiced by Sullivan’s generation, that is, the cohort coming a dozen or so years before mine. This is the game: the essayist is smart, a good stylist, and has something to say about something that isn’t, at first look, really much of a story. So he has to make it one by inserting himself. Great, your editor trusts you not to be annoying about it, so go ahead, and put yourself in. But in post-Wallace personality driven journalism, the writer is expected to be endearing, and so these essayists are always making fun of themselves. Sullivan usually portrays himself as embarrassed by the idea of being a writer and somehow physically inadequate or clumsy—like at the start of “Upon this Rock,” when he struggles to pilot an RV, or in “Unnamed Caves,” when he’s scared to shimmy over a hole that accompanying grad students giggle as they cross. These details don’t matter at all to the to the pieces, except to establish the sort of hangdog, Walter Mitty authorial persona that’s become the mode in contemporary first person reporting. Sullivan is often just plain socially awkward, a crutch used even by smooth guys like Wells Tower, who get stuck with it because they’re too much of a physical presence to get the flimsy writer nerd thing past a factchecker. The writer, whom an editor trusted with an unorthodox idea for the very reason that he’s capable and savvy and a good thinker, actually spends much of the piece playing the doofus, making us comfortable with his presence. By the end, it’s very hard for the author to make any serious judgments, because he’s wasted so much of his limited breath tearing himself down.

Sullivan is almost never indignant, in the way that essayists like David Foster Wallace and Norman Mailer, to whom he’s often compared, were in their nonfiction, in the way that Lytle frequently was in his, even at the start of his family chronicle. You could go through all of Blood Horses and almost every essay in Pulphead without finding one moment of honest remonstrance at the ways we live our lives, or even how any individual lives her life, unless it’s directed at a soft pulpy target, like reality show psychologists. This is from a piece about the Real World:

I’d suspected there were puppeteers involved in The Real World, invisibly instigating “drama,” but to think that the network had just gone for it and hired a shrink? One who, as the kids went on to assure me, was involved not only in manipulating the cast during shooting but also in the casting process itself? And she’s worked on other shows? This explained so much, about The Real World, about all of it.

I know it’s GQ, but this, coming at the end of a long piece on reality television, is as much as a man Time has said “may be best essayist of his generation” can find to be unambiguously wrong with the medium? It’s about as bold as he gets, when he says the shrink has “definitely, definitely, done some harm.”

There’s no question Sullivan knows he’s restricted by rules of this game, and he actually complained about it recently to MacLeans. Speaking about the caricature he makes of himself, he said, “You don’t feel like you can really write behind his mask with legitimacy . . . My new bosses might not like to hear that. But I really want to try something different that’s moving into a more complete third person.”

Glimpses of this more complete and stronger authorial persona can already be found in “American Grotesque,” which I never saw praised in any of the Pulphead reviews but seems to me to be one of the best recent pieces of American political writing. Half of it takes place, of course, in Kentucky—actually just a few miles down the interstate from where I write this—in a part of the state where the inhabitants are demonized, sanctified, made fun of, held up as the Proud Plain People of the earth, and in general only very rarely got by anyone with the capacity to write about it.

It may be especially impressive to me, because I’ve never left Southeastern Kentucky feeling I understood it in a way I’d feel comfortable writing up, and I won’t this time. And Sullivan’s piece is about nothing less than the birth, coincident with efforts to pass some sort of health care law, of the Tea Party. He does a workmanlike job exposing some hypocrisy and racism at Glenn Beck’s 9/12 march and at a town hall meeting, and then goes to visit London, Kentucky to investigate the possible murder of Bill Sparkman, the census worker whose death was all over cable news a few months ago. He tells the two equally heartbreaking stories of how Sparkman could have died (it was either a staged, suicidal or actual, homicidal lynching), alternating them with seemingly pointless anecdotes about the character of these hills and his distant roots there. But they build. And then there’s an admonition that in one scene manages to articulate the value of the rootedness he searches for, to shut up anyone who questions whether the South is still really all that different and whether that difference itself holds any value, and to use those answers to lay bare the peculiar contradictions of the Tea Party by using a message anyone could live by. And it describes just how indescribable this area can be as well as anything you’ll ever read:

In a gas station I heard a conversation about religion. I almost hesitate to reproduce it, because it sounds made up. The woman behind the counter and a bearded, even cartoonishly hillbilly-looking man who’d just bought a pack of generic cigarettes were talking. The man remarked that there were all sorts of religions right there in that part of Kentucky.

“Did you ever see snakes?” the woman said. She meant snake handlers.

“No,” said the man. “Did you?”

“Not right out in the open,” the woman said. “But I knew people that had ‘em in the back room.”

While I paid, they exchanged some pieties on how everyone has his own beliefs. Then the woman said, “It’s just like, ten people see a car accident, every single one is gonna tell the police something different” (a vivid way, I thought, of localizing the story about the blind men feeling an elephant).

“Tell me which one of ‘em gets out to help,” the man said, “that’s the one whose religion I’ll listen to.”

The woman and I both stood there. I think we each understood in our own way that Snuffy Smith here had just dropped some Spinoza-level wisdom on us through a parting in his tobacco-browned beard-nest. I went to the car and scribbled it down.

There are people who will ask you why you love Kentucky.

You could miss it, if you were still a bit miffed about Sullivan occupying so many pages of your bathroom entertainment, but that last line is a soft admonition and the whole scene an appeal to a local political morality, the same kind of appeal Lytle made in his writings on Middle Tennessee. I’m sitting here rereading this intensely modest passage and remembering my last few days in Southeastern Kentucky: the old man in front of me in line at Wal-Mart who, when the cashier asked if he was going to watch the Super Bowl answered, “No ma’am, I don’t care to watch two big businesses play each other” ; trying to explain to my girlfriend what it is that has drawn so many generations of young idealists up to these hills and having an easy explanation for why I come (my dad came first) but no good way to explain what drew him—and it seems that we need more of this writer than he may appreciate, or at least has heretofore given of himself.

So to finish, as Sullivan finished that Levi Johnston piece, with an exhortation: Exposure to gossip and memoir don’t mean you know someone to talk to, of course. But rumor in the bars of Midtown Memphis and Chapel Hill and Oxford has it that he’s working on a big, ambitious book he says he’ll never finish. The idea of him doing something that’s a “more complete third person” is exciting, but not really the point. He’s good enough to take the model he’s already mastered to new places, the way his ledes and the structure of his essays already play with a tired form. It would be nice to see him be less modest about his intellect and moral sense, which, you have to think, would inevitably lead him back south—his only real showy moments come when he drops bits of southern history, or his knowledge of a local quirk. But what I’d like is something to convince us that kind of knowledge matters, that there are societal lessons to be wrung, like he wrings them out in “American Grotesque,” from the cloth of mountain anecdote and dusty genealogical diagram. No one is better equipped to do it.

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