Over at the Paris Review Online, one of my favorite writers — John Jeremiah Sullivan — has a short essay about the tension between religious belief and religious music. It is also an essay about a new collection of old country music —Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard — collected by Kentuckian Don Wahle, who kept the records in boxes until the day he died. Says Sullivan about the track “Beyond the Starry Plane”:

From the abyss of the static come “dear Mother” and “no matter what I do” and “we shall meet again” and “Jesus is my God.” I listen to this song and imagine Don Wahle listening to it, leaning forward to hear it better. An infinitesimal point of communion, a shared pause before the obliteration.

Sullivan also wrote the liner notes for the collection, which Milo Miles reviewed for Fresh Air a few weeks back.


Image by Tennessee Home and Farm via Flickr Commons

He told me another L.A. story, about the time Axl picked up Slash’s beloved albino boa constrictor and it shat all over Axl. And Axl had on some expensive clothes. He got so mad he wanted to hurt the snake. He was cussing at it. But Slash picked up his guitar—here Dana imitated a tree-chopping backswing pose—and said, “Don’t. Hurt. My. Snake.” Axl backed off. 

Dana Gregory, one of Axl’s old friends from Lafayette on the book Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

a mostly non-fiction reading list

A friend asked me what my favorite non-fiction books are and I was pretty pretty psyched to put this together and I thought I’d share it here. Here is a list of non-fiction (and some fiction, ok) that I have really enjoyed and has made me, if not a better artist, than a better thinker. I don’t think everything people read has to be super highbrow and serious either so there are some of those inclusions in here as well:

  • Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 by Elizabeth Winder (people (I used to be one of them) talk a lot of shit about Sylvia Plath but she is much more than just a whiny white lady and more than this symbol of despair; she was a real, funny, strange, talented person with a strong voice as a writer)
  • The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt (a really great group of essays about illness, childhood, history, dying)
  • On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
  • Legs Get Led Astray by Chloe Caldwell (only $3.99 for kindle!)
  • Louis Riel by Chester Brown
  • The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso (maybe the best book I read last year? last 5 years even?)
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed (yes, it’s an Oprah Book Club book (hi, Jonathan Franzen) and everyone talks about it but it’s for a reason: it’s really fucking good)
  • Fun Home/Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (these are both graphic novel memoirs and if you are like most people (besides Ian) who has had some kind of issues with their parents, this is a great read. It’s a great read regardless.)
  • Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reyes (poetry but whatever? let’s be real. important read for women.)
  • Touching from a Distance by Deborah Curtis (yes this is about Ian Curtis and Joy Division but it’s also about misogyny and abusive relationships and depression and it’s really awesome)
  • Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste by Carl Wilson (possibly the most important book I’ve read about aesthetics and it’s such a fast, funny, enjoyable read!)
  • Almost No Memory by Lydia Davis (this is fiction but I am convinced that this book will make everyone a better person and writer.)
  • Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler (one of my favorite books on gender and identity, super super formative for me)
  • About Alice by Calvin Trillin (beautiful and sad and just full of grief, gorgeous; all of Trillin’s books about his wife Alice and his family are funny and amazing.)
  • The Poetics of Space/The Poetics of Reverie by Gaston Bachelard (so good. so braintaxing, so good.)
  • Shimmer by Sarah Schulman (great novel but really political, based on her actual life, amazing work. also, I remember in undergrad one of my professors telling me how the dude who wrote Rent basically stole material from Schulman whoa whoa.)
  • The Devil in the White City by Erik Larsen (this is awesome and about murder and architecture and it’s just a really fascinating read, you can feel yourself absorbing so much about people and humanity as you read)
  • The Wizard of Oz by Salman Rushdie (this is like, a tiny BFI book by famous writers on classic films (like 33 ⅓ for movies) and it’s about home and identity and being an immigrant, it’s great, I adore it)
  • Lynch on Lynch by David Lynch (duh, genius)
  • Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan (I’m halfway through this because I keep savoring it but it’s gold)
  • journals and letters by all sorts of people like James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Anne Sexton, Anaïs Nin, Sylvia Plath, gosh, the list goes on for ages.

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.

John Jeremiah Sullivan on writer Donald Antrim in the New York Times. Thanks to Casey for the link.


Couple at Coney Island in 1928 photographed by Walker Evans

Evans is the celebrated photographer who collaborated with James Agee for the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men a book that examines sharecropping families during the Dust Bowl (and Great Depression) in 1936. The book was one-of-a-kind for its combination of factual reporting, poetic prose, and jarring, iconic photography. It exposed many of the complicated layers of the disaster that ravaged the landscape and the families who lived and worked there.  

Melville House just released a never-before-seen article Agee wrote (and Evans photographed) called Cotton Tenants. that “enhances the reputation" of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, reinforcing the Agee and Evans’ contribution to journalism, writing more broadly, and documentary photography. 

Here’s a review by John Jeremiah Sullivan of the newly discovered manuscript. 

photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art 

The Books That Changed Their Lives

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

Now reading.

The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.

This description of an RV appears on page 8. I’m not much further than that in the book because I just got it this afternoon, but yeah. I have a feeling I’m going to love these essays. It’s only a sentence, yet it warns that John Jeremiah Sullivan is an exciting, adventurous writer.

The book feels good in my hands, like an indispensable map. I’m conscious of being so drawn to essays lately. (Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now is another recent example.) Maybe I’m on a creative honesty kick. I might argue that the best stories—even in fiction—are the ones carefully drawn from real life. Make it real.

Anyhow, I’ve only just begun to read this. Fingers crossed.

We interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you the latest news about Karen Russell, 2009 Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers Fellow…

Karen’s critically acclaimed novel Swamplandia (which can be found at the Library) was just selected as a best book of 2011 by the New York Times! Swamplandia has been making the rounds of late and is in development to become an HBO Comedy project. 

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!) 

You Do Not Want To Miss This: John Jeremiah Sullivan with Caveman

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.

"These thoughts begin, for most of us, typically, in childhood, when we are making eye contact with a pet or wild animal. I go back to our first family dog, a preternaturally intelligent-seeming Labrador mix, the kind of dog who herds playing children away from the street at birthday parties, an animal who could sense if you were down and would nuzzle against you for hours, as if actually sharing your pain. I can still hear people, guests and relatives, talking about how smart she was. “Smarter than some people I know!” But when you looked into her eyes—mahogany discs set back in the grizzled black of her face—what was there? I remember the question forming in my mind: can she think? The way my own brain felt to me, the sensation of existing inside a consciousness, was it like that in there?”

- John Jeremiah Sullivan on animal consciousness

Last night I finished Blood Horses by John Jeremiah Sullivan. A friend who knows of my obsession with the children of writers recommended it. It is a fair balm for that wound—Sullivan’s father was a sportswriter, and by the sounds of it, one who is overdue for a best-of collection; and, in addition to that, they had a good but complicated relationship, which is how I like my writers to relate to their writer-parents.

A lot of non-fiction that gets published as a book would be better off as a long, or even a medium-length, New Yorker article, so at this point I approach all of it warily. Given the current process by which non-fiction books are written and paid for, it makes sense that this happens so frequently. It is irritating anyway. I love magazine articles, or, as it has become more fashionable to say, longform journalism. In some ways, I love them more than books. I feel somehow slighted whenever I get 70 pages into a book and realize this has happened; the book turns into a pudding with too many raisins.

Here is a book that combines the quick pleasures of the magazine with the book-length that justifies a hardcover. Blood Horses reads like a very long magazine article, and I mean that as the highest compliment. It could have kept going for another 100 pages and I wouldn’t have complained, though I doubt Sullivan would have wanted that. Its pacing is about as perfect as I have ever experienced in non-fiction. It was actually relaxing, how well-paced the book is. It was like savasana pose, but reading. Sullivan is focused on a few core ideas but keeps wandering away from them and circling back; the circles get bigger, and weirder, but are always on their way back to horses, or Sullivan’s father, or Kentucky, or a combination of the three. My admiration of his curiosity and research borders on idolatrous. It was just joyful to read this book, even though it is not necessarily a happy one. The last twenty pages or so left me stunned.

Because at its core this book is about horses—and can I just say here that I haven’t given a shit about horses since I was 10, so please don’t allow your non-interest in horses or horse racing keep this from your reading list—Secretariat’s win at the Belmont (the third and final race of the Triple Crown) comes up repeatedly, and the telling gains in detail each time. Toward the end of the book, Sullivan writes:

I came across a story about the ’73 Belmont in the Lexington Herald-Leader. Jack Nicklaus, the golfer, was watching the race at home on television. As Secretariat pulled away from Sham, Nicklaus went down on all fours in front of the set, looking up in disbelief, pounding his fists into the floor and weeping, freaking out the people he had invited over to watch the race.

Nicklaus later told his story to the sports commentator Haywood Hale Broun, saying, “I don’t know why I did that.”

“You’ve spent your entire life searching for perfection,” Broun replied. “And you finally saw it.”

I did weep as I finished this book. I didn’t go down on all fours, nor pound the floor. I should have.

I think empathy is a guy who punches you in the face at a bus station, and you’re somehow able to look at that him and know enough about what situation he was in to know that he had to do that and not to hit back. That’s empathy, and nothing ever happens in writing that has that kind of moral heroism about it.
—  John Jeremiah Sullivan (x)

"Can I Ask You Something? Have You Noticed That People Are Always Taking Pictures of Your House?"

John Jeremiah Sullivan on living on the set of One Tree Hill:

 My wife was eight months pregnant, and we lived in a one-bedroom apartment, the converted ground floor of an antebellum house, on a noisy street downtown, with an eccentric upstairs neighbor, Keef, from Leland, who told me that I was a rich man—that’s how he put it, “Y’er a rich man, ain’t ye?”—who told us that he was going to shoot his daughter’s boyfriend with an ultra-accurate sniper rifle he owned, for filling his daughter full of drugs, “shoot him below the knee,” he said, “that way they cain’t get you with intent to kill.” Keef had been a low-level white supremacist and still bore a few unfortunate tattoos but told us he’d lost his racism when, on a cruise in the Bahamas, he’d saved a drowning black boy’s life, in the on-ship pool, and by this conversion experience “came to love some blacks.” He later fell off a two-story painting ladder and broke all his bones. A fascinating man, but not the sort I wanted my daughter having unlimited exposure to in her formative years. Not my angel. We entered nesting panic. We wanted big and solid. We wanted Greatest Generation, but their parents, even greater. We found it. It had a sleeping porch, and a shiplike attic where I in my dotage would pull objects from a trunk and tell their histories to little ones. We asked for the money, and in some office somebody’s boss came forward with the Stamp.