Tuesday, April 23, 2013

STL #111: Pulphead: About John Jeremiah Sullivan but maybe more about Guy Davenport (Not a Ladder but a Web)

[Ed. Note: This draft has been bottle up in the queue for at least three weeks. I am going to do a 20 minute once over and release it. Writing about books I've read over 6 months ago was not a good idea. The remainder of the 2012 review will be cranked out in short order.]

The first thing I ever read by John Jeremiah Sullivan was the interview he conducted with Guy Davenport for The Paris Review. The questions are standard for the journal--mostly about process, biography, or disposition. [Ed. note: I recently read that the questions were actually written by Davenport and that he enlisted his young friend as a sort of a beard. In any case, the "interviewer" aspect of this transcript is not what struck me at the time.] The appreciative introduction is informative, but not particularly memorable apart from my keen interest in the subject. So on beginning to read Sullivan's collection of essays Pulphead, I had no memory of my earlier contact with his writing, and no knowledge of his link to Davenport. In the first essay, "Upon this Rock," about his experience attending a Christian rock festival, he refers in passing to Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia's translations of the sayings of Jesus. I noted this reference to a favored writer, but didn't think much of it. It's a rather eclectic source, but a reasonable enough reference given the subject. Nothing much in the essay suggested an influence of Davenport. The essay, approaching what to the literate liberal sensibility is a tasteless, socially harmful subject (Christian rock), reflects an honesty and engagement with the people he met there that I found touching (but still funny and aware). Two essays later, I encountered a vaguely Davenport-esque figure. Andrew Lytle is described as an aging, cultured, oracular, and dignified survivor of Modernism (well, the Agrarians) living in limited approbation and general obscurity in Lexington KY. If it was a story rather than essay, I might have suspected the main character was based on Davenport. But most of the ensuing subjects--The Real World, Michael Jackson, Axl Rose--quickly moved away from Davenport's world of high art. But midway through the volume lies "La-Hwi-Ne-Ski: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist," dedicated to Davenport. The subject, Constatine Samuel Raffinesque (the "eccentric naturalist" in question) is at once a Davenportesque subject and a curiously Davenportesque figure. Again, the central figure seems like a fictious picaro, moving through the 19th century landscape and settling in Kentucky.  The eccentric naturalist seems like he would attract the attention of the author of a monograph on Louis Aggassiz.

What to make of this unexpected connection between a working features writer, freelancing for GQ and other magazines, and the Guy of Lexington? [Ed note: Changed from "Don of Lexington." Both phrases are terrible. It turns out the link is personal--Sullivan grew up near GD and knew and admired him since he was a young man. In an interview he says he spent several years reading nothing but books suggested by Davenport. This unexpected connection suggests that there the web of culture that Davenport traverses so ably in his essays (and fiction for that matter) is broader than it seems at first. It is as broad as a thinking mind's interests. I take the web metaphor from Sullivan--in his capacity of Southern editor for The Paris Review he tells a correspondent looking for guidance in what to read that "My only piece of advice before recommending some titles would be: don’t fall for the inferiority/superiority racket. We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web. Right now you’re experiencing a desire to become more aware of and sensitive to its other strands. That feeling you’re having is culture. Whatever feeds that, go with it." He then goes on to a reading list headed by Every Force Evolves a FormThe Geography of the Imagination, and The Hunter Gracchus. 

Sullivan is no copy of Davenport but he is without a doubt a skilled craftsman, and true a voice. Any number of scenes stand out to my mind more vividly than scenes in New Yorker stories: waiting for Bunny Wailer, the uneasiness of living on the set of One Tree Hill. He crafts true and wonderful sentences: "This is us, a people of of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights" is widely quoted, but my favorite is this description of Axl Rose: "I consider the moment in the 'Patience' video when he does the slow-motion snaky slide-foot dance while letting his hands float down as if they were feathers in a draftless room--one fleeting near-pause in their descent for each note that Slash emphasizes in his transition to the coda--the greatest white male rock dance moment of the video age." That unwieldily, bizarre sentiment is followed by a simpler clarification: "What Axl does is lovely, I'm sorry." [Ed. Note: This final note is the shipwreck of another version of this piece. That is what I do. I'm sorry too.]