About a month ago, editors from this magazine, which employs me, and from which I am therefore loath to turn down assignments even when they are horrifying, assigned me to get a series of massages and other body treatments here in the coastal town where I live, Wilmington, southeastern N.C., Port City of Progress and Pleasure. There was a semi-legitimate journalistic impulse behind it, but it was also billed as an act of mercy. I’d been traveling and writing a lot for them, spending a lot of time in middle seats on international flights, and my body had reached new levels of vileness. The yellowish gray-green circles under my eyes had a micropebbled texture, and my skin gave off a sebaceousy sheen of coffee-packet coffee. My calves had developed a vague thrombotic throb. It was the kind of premature aging where you think, I’ll come back from this but not all the way.
My God, there have been more tears shed on reality TV than by all the war widows in the world. Are we so raw? It must be so. There are simply too many of them – too many shows and too many people on the shows – for them not to be revealing something endemic. This is us, a people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights.
He wore a nice white shirt open just one extra button. He’s into clothes. Not in a fashion-forward way, more of an old-school, deep-quality way. His seamstress mother taught him about fabrics, what they signaled to the world. When Antrim learned last year that he’d won a $625,000 MacArthur “genius award,” his longtime friend and supporter Jonathan Franzen sent him a note saying, Finally you can afford some of the clothes you love. Meaning not that he could finally buy them — he’d been buying them — but that he could now afford them.
Some of the finest storytellers around–Tobias Wolff, David Simon, John Waters, Roy Blount Jr., Karen Russell, Patton Oswalt–on the works that truly slayed them. Our favorite entry, by GQ’s John Jeremiah Sullivan on the biography of Jim Morrison, is below. Click here for the rest.
You can’t ask writers to name the most important books of their youth. They cannot hear the question—it passes through a region in the left temporal lobe that changes it into a different question: What would you like us to think were the most important books of your youth? How many authors have racked 300 words recounting the Jove-like descent of Hemingway’s Michigan stories into their adolescent world, when what they should have said is Choose Your Own Adventure 91: You Are a Superstar.
I undertook, as an experiment, to suppress that part of the brain responsible for this distortion, and yesterday began to receive the first stray images. Flame-bright reds and oranges. A Jesus-like man, standing: his lithe and shirtless torso draped down the cover. His left areola—flat, dark, and hard, like an old Spanish coin—seems somehow disturbingly prominent.
Rows of tall black capital letters appear: NO ONE HERE GETS OUT ALIVE. Little white ones: The Biography of Jim Morrison. I don’t need to see the authors’ names. Hail, Hopkins and Sugerman, unacknowledged legislators.
In my memory there’s a group of us, the world’s most unintentionally humorous gang, who carried this book through the hallways in the eighth grade, always with cover out, like a badge. Signifying what? That we were skaters and people in bands. The strange tale of James Douglas Morrison, a Florida-born military brat who wanted with every cell in his body to be a great English poet but had been so culturally malformed by post-World War II America that he emerged a drug-gobbling sex shaman, canting such verses as
Ride the snake Ride the snake To the lake The ancient lake, baby The snake is long Seven miles Ride the snake
You can hear Karen discuss the creation of her novel with another immensely talented author, Wells Tower, during her visit to the Library last March at an event hosted by the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. (Wells Tower will be appearing at the Library with John Jeremiah Sullivan on December 15 - check that out too!)
Sign up to see GQ contrib and Pulphead author John Jeremiah Sullivan in conversation with the band Caveman on Tuesday, November 8 at the inaugural event of the GQ/FSG Original Series. Space is limited.
Critics have been going nuts for Sullivan’s book, out last week. The Times Sunday Book Review called Pulphead “the best, and most important, collection of magazine writing since [David Foster] Wallace’s ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” and described Sullivan’s writing as “a bizarrely coherent, novel, and generous pastiche of the biblical, the demotic, the regionally gusty and the erudite.” Time said Sullivan “may be the best essayist of his generation.”
If you still need convincing, here’s a taste, from his piece “Upon This Rock” about a Christian Rock festival in rural Pennsylvania:
Seven miles from Mount Union, a sign read CREATION AHEAD. The sun was setting; it floated above the valley like a fiery gold balloon. I fell in with a long line of cars and trucks and vans—not many RVs. Here they were, all about me: the born again. On my right was a pickup truck, its bed full of teenage girls in matching powder blue T-shirts; they were screaming at a Mohawked kid who was walking beside the road. I took care not to meet their eyes—who knew but they weren’t the same fillies I had solicited days before? Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn.
Oh, I understand where you are coming from. But that is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram’s horn. Quite capably. Twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.
“That something is in part what draws travelers to the Aran Islands: it takes an independent character to live perversely on three spits of barren limestone in the north Atlantic, the way they do, in a place where you couldn’t even grow spuds unless you created your own sad scrum soil with a kind of layered-kelp composting. If they were to suddenly offer to braid your hair or be smilingly hustling you onto group tours, it would spoil the effect. You go to the Aran Islands expecting to keep a certain distance from the population.”
My mother lived in Ireland for two years, and during that time, I visited the Aran Islands thrice. The place is enchanting, but also haunting and savage. The final blip of land before the expanding Atlantic, a land as frozen as it is rocky, where fishermen don’t learn to swim because the water’s too cold anyway. These are some of the pictures I took on Dún Aonghasa. [Nick]
2011 was full of ups (great stuff, great publications, good work) and downs (many, many, many different flavors of rejection. All of them draining), and I want 2012 to be super great. Here’s some semi-public resolutions.
1) Write something that gets mentioned on Long Reads. Or, to be more succinct, write a story about something that I’m obsessed with, to the point of mania. I’ve been happy with what I’ve written but there’s a bit of a difference between obsession and practice, let’s say. When I was in a class last spring, what I got most was, “okay, this is well written, but do you even care about the guy? I can’t tell what you’re thinking.” Things like that sometimes feel a little… telling, I guess. Work in 2012 is going to be wrenching and full of feelings. But not unprofessionally so!
1A) The problem with reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead is that you then, instinctively, want to go on the most JJS-friendly adventure possible just so you can write about it with a modicum of his charm and skill. Sadly, two events that were loaded with potential passed me by since Thanksgiving, but that’s been because I’ve been off-and-on sick since then - and when I haven’t been sick, my guy has been either sick or in the hospital on Christmas Night with a stomach flu! - so I’m just tired.
1B) Hitting the limits of writing things under my name, to a degree. It may be freeing to go anonymous.
2) Work on a nonfiction book proposal. Hopefully in February.
3) Finish project X, sell it: that’s the current job. (Get at me, agents and editors. For real.) One thing that’s funny is that, well, the title of my project is definitely inspired by a Pulp song, so it’s really awesome that Pulp is hitting America in April.
4) Be more selfish. I have a mother who is wonderful, but as the mother of five children, she is fantastic at putting other people’s happiness before her own. And I think I’ve learned, somewhat, from her example and have become a people pleaser. That’s a fine skill, but I need to make sure to do things that are good for me as well.
5) Read well. I read voraciously, but not always well. I had an Elin Hildebrand period this summer. I love pulp books by Iowa writers slumming. But I just want to read good things - I burned through The Diary of a Part-Time Indian yesterday, and while the plotting was episodic, overall, the careful choice in words was just so refreshing and good to read. Moby Dick’s next. This is a year of autodidactism.
6) Get a hobby. Self-explanatory.
7) Break a bad habit. In this case, I think I may lay off the movie blogs from now until… after the Oscars, I suppose. I have a weakness for grumpy old men of the internet (why do I read Hollywood Elsewhere, when it’s obvious Jeffrey Wells is not a very nice person? Because he’s clearly a believer in the transcendental power of a good film, underneath the crankiness? Not a good enough reason! And while I have a soft spot for Armond White, I don’t really need to know what he thinks about a film. I can usually guess it. And why read The Playlist and Deadline? For once, it would be pretty great to see a movie without knowing anything about it. It would be really nice). So, yeah, lay off movie blogs. Except for maybe reviews of Joachim Trier’s new movie when it plays Sundance. But that’s it.
8) Move. Also self-explanatory. I want to move to a different city and to get an apartment that I can nest in and outfit to my delight. My current location is no good for me - it’s one of those places with limited opportunity, a limited amount of people, and when you’re in a place like that, just not getting depressed is a genuine accomplishment. Which stinks! So I will move to someplace vibrant and pretty this year. Someplace with a lot of sun. I am working on making that happen sooner rather than later. I hope it works!
Ireland starts for me with the end of “The Dead,” which my father read to me from his desk in his basement office in New Albany, Ind. I don’t remember what age I was — feels like it could have happened anytime between the 6th and 11th birthdays — but I picture the scene with a strange, time-slurred clarity of detail. His offices were always in the basement, because that’s where he could smoke his endless, extra-long menthols, exhaling nasally over the red mustache. I can smell it in his sweat when he bends down to kiss me goodbye, and I smell it in this room. I also note cat urine, because our vicious, lonely old calico, Skipper, tends to relieve herself on the dark green chair in the corner when stressed, and the scent has soaked into the stuffing, and my father won’t throw away the chair, because it belonged to his father. The mottled surface of the desk where he writes is dark green, almost black, and glowing green are the little letters on the screen of the primitive Tandy word processor the newspaper has given him, and an excellent forest green is the cover of “The Portable James Joyce,” my mother’s Penguin paperback from college. He’s holding it close to his face. He was blind in one eye and couldn’t see especially well out of the other, wore dark-framed, vaguely government-issue glasses, but they’re lowered, he’s turning his head and squinting over the top of them. He reads me the famous last paragraph, “The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward… .” Nothing of the actual language remained with me, except, years later, reading the story at school, there was something like déjà vu at the part where Joyce first says the snow was “falling faintly,” then four words later says it was, “faintly falling.” The slight overconspicuousness of that had stuck, as I suppose he intended.
I was under the tragic spell of the South, which you’ve either felt or haven’t. In my case it was acute because, having grown up in Indiana with a Yankee father, a child exile from Kentucky roots of which I was overly proud, I’d long been aware of a faint nowhereness in my life. Others wouldn’t have sensed it, wouldn’t have minded. I felt it as a physical ache. Finally I was somewhere, there. The South … I loved it as only one who will always be outside it can. Merely to hear the word ‘Faulkner’ at night brought gusty emotions.
John Jeremiah Sullivan, “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” from Pulphead
A Yankee child of Southern lineage, I also lay (more dubious than JJS) claim to this feeling. Also so far Pulphead is so great! So great.