Pulphead aka ‘Sir, do you have a permit for your excellence?’


I am currently reading Pulphead, a collection of essays and magazine journalism from the pen of John Jeremiah Sullivan. I’m about halfway through, and I have already come to an awful realisation: I must never meet Mr Sullivan. If I do, I will probably babble, try and kiss his hands and maybe cry a little. Worse, I will probably compliment him (as if he has been awaiting my verdict) and then I’ll either propose marriage or declare my everlasting fealty. It Will Be Awkward, and the horror of my actions will only become clear to me after there is no chance of redeeming myself. No sir, I have no business at all meeting John Jeremiah Sullivan.


I’ve been dipping in and out of the collection in no particular order. But even so, I knew which one to read first. It was the one that I’d heard the most murmurings about, and was titled, simply, Michael. It is about the deceased pop star, and it is every bit as good as had been suggested. I won’t spoil it – I don’t even think that I could, not really – but here is a tiny little excerpt of that piece:

We won’t pity him. That he embraced his own destiny, knowing beforehand how fame would warp him, is precisely what frees us up to revere him.

I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan – I wrote him fanmail, and I am not even ashamed – and reading this essay gave me even more insight into the star I had once very briefly fancied myself in love with. It gave a full-scale American context to Michael Jackson’s life, one that is hiding in plain sight, and not very often discussed. It made me love Michael even more, and feel like I understood him just a little bit better. It made me think of small details – sibling rivalry, sibling closeness – in the shadow of big themes, themes like the nature of ‘genius’, the quest for perfection, the id and the superego. I read that essay before I went to sleep, and dreamt about it. Man, I dreamt about it.

But Michael is not the only gem in the book. Feet In Smoke is pretty incredible, detailing a horrible event from his past. Upon This Rock starts out as an ordinary little travelogue/fish-out-of-water tale, before unfolding in an entirely unusual way. And I found Getting Down To What Is Really Real unexpectedly captivating, given its subject: reality TV stars. I find that I am reading this book very slowly indeed, because I know I will miss it when I’m done. Sullivan’s stories read like he had fun while writing, like he didn’t have to strain too hard for his smart and interesting and funny words. He makes you want to write too, and not only that, he makes you want to write well. I have a very big crush on this book, and I haven’t had that in a very long time.

Actually, I’ve changed my mind. I need to meet John Jeremiah Sullivan. He is so good at what he does, and I want to steal his brain.

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