This essays in this book from John Jeremiah Sullivan were published in various magazines (GQ, The New York Times Magazine, and the like) and now collected and published in book form (paperback and kindle). I think it’s fair to say that these are in the tradition of the essayists of my youth, like Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.
In the first (and longest) essay here, On the Rock tells the story of his assignment to attend a Christian Rock concert, which, after one aborted attempt, he does. There’s not a whiff of condescension here, as he writes about the difference (subtle) between Christian rock bands and mere Christian bands. Sullivan weaves in his own “Christian phase”, which he contends that many teenagers go through. He’s especially incisive as he describes his own loss of faith – when he ‘pulled away’. He goes on to deal with the logic of the faithful.
Everything about Christianity can be justified within the context of Christian belief. That is, if you accept its terms. Once you do, your belief starts modifying the data (in ways that are themselves defensible), until eventually the data begins to reinforce belief. The precise moment of illogic is hard to isolate and may not exist. Like holding a magnifying glass at arm’s length and bringing it toward your eye: things are upside down, they’re upside down, they’re right side up. What lay between? If there was something, it passed too quickly to be observed. This is why you can never reason true Christians out of their faith. It’s not, as the adage has it, that they were never reasoned into it – many were – it’s that faith is a logical door which locks behind you. What looks like a line of thought is steadily warping into a circle, one that closes with you inside. [pg 30]
Getting Down to What is Really Real takes on reality tv shows and the ones on MTV in particular. These were (as I had forgotten) the grandaddies of them all, with The Real World debuting in 1992. Hey! The twentieth anniversary. The shows became so pervasive and kids grew up with them that there came a point when these people began to appear on the shows. The plot of reality tv shows is to a great degree the very fact of the awareness that they are acting on a reality show.
Here’s the surprising thing about this shift toward greater self-consciousness, this increased awareness of complicity in the falseness of it all – it made things more real.
Although marred by his insistence of writing this essay in the vernacular voice (seemed grating and well…not real). JJS discusses the various iterations of viewers stance regarding the show from we know its fake and staged to there’s a certain reality about it that comes through anyway. For JJS, this all misses the point which is that these shows have appropriated reality.
Unnamed Caves is an essay on the caves of Tennessee in which JJS uses this image to describe mountains:
A mountain is when you smash two tectonic plates together and the leading edges rise up into the sky like sumo wrestlers lifting up from the mat.
But the Cumberland plateau is not a mountain. A plateau is a mass of land that has risen above the surrounding landscape due to everything around it having washed away. And it always has something called “eco-segregation”, a stratification of species on the same land mass. This is as clear an explanation as you are likely to see. The Cumberland plateau is a type of plateau (karst) that is associated with the strange occurrence of disappearing streams. Not so strange however, it’s an easily explainable geological phenomena. The many caves found here are called the “unnamed caves” to protect their location for obvious reasons.
I think of the guts it takes to go in caves like he describes. I mean, I’d love to, but there’s no way. I’d definitely freak. Like the maneuver called the chimney traverse. Jaysus! Just reading about these descents into these unnamed caves, you can feel the awe and wonderment to be there, lying on your back prehaps and looking up at the ceiling with its many drawings of birds. To actually be lying there, that must be the experience of a lifetime.
The Final Comeback of Axl Rose is retrospective and a personal account of Roses’s impact, place in rock history, and a bit of a sociological study of the culture (sic) of Indiana – where both JJS and Axl grew up. JJS goes out singing “Patience” and I, never have listened to GNR except by accident on the radio, listen to it myself. Nice song.
Here’s a good one: American Grotesque. When the Sea Venture was wrecked off the coast of Bermuda on its way to Jamestown in 1609 (The wreck of the Sea Venture), nearly all of the survivors ended up going to Jamestown and perished. Some of them were English dissidents who wanted to remain (The Brownists and The Familists). One of their leaders, Henry Paine, was shot by the Governor, Sir Thomas Gates. We’ve all heard the rousing quotes from Patrick Henry (Give me liberty or give me death), Nathan Hale (I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country) and Thomas Paine (among many, many, there is this: Of all the tyrannies that affect mankind, tyranny in religion is the worst). Yes! But maybe you’ve never heard the one from Henry Paine, which is just as rousing and “American” as those others. And they were his last words:
The Governor can kiss my arse.
Next scene: the 9/12 march of 2009. Really a tea-bag rally. At a town hall-style forum, JJS’s discussion devolves into the question of healthcare. Are we as a nation committed to healthcare for all? Or to subvert Henry Paine’s quote, those who don’t provide for their own healthcare can kiss our arses? Illuminating is the fact that universal healthcare was proposed as far back as 1751, by none other than that notorious “socialist”, Benjamin Franklin:
Franklin had a list of reasons – he cherished lists – but it boiled down to something primal, a sense that it was beyond the pale ever to let human beings suffer because they couldn’t pay when means existed to help. This “seems essential to the true spirit of Christianity,” Franklin wrote, “and should be extended to all in general, whether deserving or undeserving as far as our power reaches.”
Before it comes full circle back to healthcare, there is a related sidebar about the murder/suicide (?) of a federal census taker in the woods of London, Kentucky (Bill Sparkman). It all sounds so current.
Unknown Bards is about a whole slew of little known blues singers that were active between the years just before the turn of the century to 1939 (the pre-war Revenants). Names I’d never heard of like Geeshie Wiley. She especially intrigued me, and I listened to a few of her existing songs. There are only six, I believe. Just incredible.
On John Fahey: Fahey was someone whose destiny followed the track of a deep running flaw, like a twisted apple. [pg 254]
On Skip James: Nehemiah Curits “Skip” James, the dark prince of the country blues, a thin black man with pale eyes and an alien falsetto who in 1931 recorded a batch of songs so sad and unsettling it’s said that people paid him on street corners not to sing. [pg 254]. I’ve owned theses Skip James classics for over 50 years, and still cherish them.
Other essays include: The Last Wailer, a visit to Kingston, Jamica to interview Bunny Wailer, in which the music (of course) comes up as well as the strange politics of Jamaica; Feet in Smoke, about his brothers near-death experience; Two fascinating biographical sketches of (to me) little known historical figures, LA*HWI*NE*SKI: Career of an Eccentric Naturalist (Constantine Rafinesque), who by a quirk of fate missed being the “Lewis” portion of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and Lytle: An Essay, about the life and death of a southern institution he had known, Andrew Lytle; A couple of odd pieces (but kinda fun). One called Violence of the Lambs, mostly made up but based on several real incidents of increasing animal attacks – including animals thought to have never engaged in this activity before – on humans. The other, Peyton’s Place, about renting their house out for use as a set for the show “One Tree Hill”; A couple of redundant ones, like At A Shelter (After Katrina) and Michael, yet another Michael Jackson sketch.
So a few gems, a few so-what, and several of some interest.