A Review of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead: Essays

[San Francisco Chronicle]

In yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, I’ve got a review of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s terrific new book. It collects a bunch of Sullivan’s magazine pieces (hence its title, Pulphead), and pretty much all of them, whether a review or a profile or a topical feature, need and deserve the essay– prefix. The writing and thinking are that good.

Oh, here’s a fascinating snippet from from an interview Sullivan did where he talks about his nonfiction persona:

One aspect of coming out of the magazine world is that fact-checking is always there, hovering, waiting to take away your favorite sentences. But your “self” they don’t get to touch, they don’t get to mess with. That’s your fiefdom. So I like to take that as a liberty, and I try to run with it. That’s what you mean by persona.I never feel like the “I” that’s speaking in a piece of mine has any real duty to sync up with whatever Me is on a given day, in terms of sensibility. If I can create an entity on the page, a being with a voice, who’s able to look at things in a way that gets me closer to what’s true about them, then I embrace him, even if he ends up saying things I don’t say. You can’t do it with other people, of course. If you didn’t actually say the heat was miserable when we were riding the bus together, I can’t quote you as saying that in my piece. But the creature who writes under my byline gets to feel hot and miserable and tell you about it, and the fact-checkers have no way to check it, except to verify that it was 98 degrees in El Paso that day.I’m saying it’s one thing we get as nonfiction writers. You know, fiction writers get a lot. They can do anything. We can’t do that much, but we can play with masks, and they can’t take that away.


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