John Jeremiah Sullivan: Michael Jackson's Body Is “The Greatest Piece of Postmodern American Sculpture”

Great writing is never passive, and so great reading must follow suit. Throughout Pulphead, Sullivan's new essay collection, the urge is to press the book right into your face. This is as close as one can get to wading through the Appalachian canebrake, praising Axl Rose's serpentine boogie, or watching as the Miz from MTV's The Real World signs another pair of young implants.

The 37-year old Indiana native is what Terry Southern called a 'writer's-writer's writer.' He operates from a unique and enviable vantage point, crafting taut, precise narratives from a wide swath of inherently surreal Americana. And he does it for a readership, a “chorus in his head,” that is as curious and unknowable as the stories he mines, as if from memory, from this great weird country. Between two books and multiple contributions to such literary favorites as Harper's, the Paris Review, and GQ, Sullivan is insistently prolific.

New Journalism, that perennial cocktail of journalism and literature, lends much to these essays. Where traditional reporting is personality-free, here we welcome the author's perspective. Riding solo in a twenty-seven foot RV, Sullivan documents time spent at a Christian rock festival with Darius, Ritter, and Bub, a group of young, amiable West Virginians. He eats frog legs sauteed in butter, reminisces on his own brush with American evangelism, and watches as a man dies of a heart attack, in line for funnel cake. Currently making the rounds on a national book tour, Sullivan pays a visit to San Francisco's The Booksmith on Wednesday.

He spoke with us about his love of the South, David Foster Wallace, and what it's like to edit Tom Wolfe.

You wrote that “Michael Jackson's body is the greatest piece of postmodern American sculpture.” What did you mean by that?

In a way I meant it literally. Actually that's the only way I meant it. If sculpture is visual

expression in three dimensions, that's what Michael's body became, and it's hard to

imagine a piece of art that more thoroughly transmitted the anxieties and contradictions

of his time.

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