Best known for his GQ profiles, which take on popular culture from very idiosyncratic perspectives characterised by a ‘John Jeremiah Sullivan’ savant-doofus character bumbling around in them, I was a bit wary of this collection. I stumbled on the opening essay, Upon this Rock, which opens seemingly hellbent on banishing straight journalistic standards of brevity and objectivity to whimsy along with this Sullivan character making a dick of himself en route to his subject matter – a Christian Rock festival. Better seen almost as a travelogue-meets-memoir, over 40 pages it gets down into sociological insight, theological meandering, and memoir: rewarding, once you’re tuned in to his frequency. But a little too clever for his own good, maybe. Easy to worry over the idea that he’s repping the only worldview that allows this kind of indulgence. Just imagine a similar essay written from a female or minority perspective: it would be dismissed as “too personal”, I bet. (Relevant).
Still, that’s not JJS’s fault, and Jeebus knows, the guy can write. I’d already read his nigh-legendary Axl Rose profile, which riffs on the Gale Talese ‘Frank Sinatra has a cold’ no-contact-with-the-primary-subject format, and does so brilliantly. I re-read it for probably the third time in this collection, and enjoyed it even more. His Michael Jackson profile ‘Back in the Day‘ is the stand out from all his popular culture analysis bits, hell it’s the best Jackson piece I’ve ever read and had me on the verge of tears.
But where he really surprised me was his reportage of more esoteric subjects. The pieces on Native American cave art, eccentric naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, and the weird insular world of early blues record collecting, which spins into a discourse on American heritage and memory, are jaw-droppingly good. He gets out of his own way in this work, and gives the subjects more foreground.
Not that I’d want to have missed his description of renting his house out to a TV company as a set for One Tree Hill, which is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. I finished this collection feeling a little more in awe of the world, and more than a little stupid in comparison.