I feel that I’ve yet to fully realize how lucky I am to have spent Tuesday evening with John Jeremiah Sullivan, a gem I just recently discovered. If you find yourself unable to recognize the name, as I did a short week ago, relieve yourself of ignorance by exploring his extensive trove. Sullivan, like legends David Foster Wallace and Joan Didion to whom he has been rightly compared, captures the fabric of our weird, vast American culture in a way that makes the ordinary deliriously funny and the strange surprisingly sympathetic and real. In his works, he recounts marching with impassioned Tea Partiers, befriending Appalachian Christian Rock fans named Bub and Pee Wee, and toking up before “It’s a Small World” with the slightest hope of enduring the saccharine parallel universe that is Disney.
It was with this exciting new sense of fandom that I shook his hand, took my seat, and pulled out my notebook to jot down bits of what was to come. John began his talk with short preface: he would not be discussing past works or reading any selections, but rather sharing his current project in production. Though historical in content, the story Sullivan told us flowed like a classic mystery. The characters ranged from an eccentric and enigmatic critic named Columbus Bragg, two performing brothers with questionably complementary songs and gripping histories, and a depressed English farmer from the sixteenth century. As we were taken on the journey that Sullivan himself has forged, we learned of formerly unknown origins of Blues music, unearthed hits from the early 1900s filled with morose and cutting imagery, dissected the etymology of the term “Blues” itself, and examined the artistic exchange that has transcended borders and racial lines for centuries. Needless to say, it was quite an hour.
John’s engrossing and honest narration was complemented by projected photographs of original newspapers, portraits, and sheet music, as well as musical recordings of century old songs by the wildly popular Paul Dresser including an eerie rendition of “The Curse,” a tune that berated a former lover with no hesitation whatsoever. Such aids brought the fascinatingly bizarre story to life and assisted the many twists and turns in their unfolding.
While I wish that I’d more time to become acclimated with Sullivan’s work before his visit, I can now go forth in my further exploration with a valuable knowledge of his persona, process, and passion. The signed copy of Pulphead is pretty neat too.