Song of the South
J. C. Gabel
by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
$16.00 List Price
“I was under the tragic spell of the South, which either you’ve felt or you haven’t,” John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” from his new collection, Pulphead. “In my case,” he continues, “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 to my life.”
Sullivan’s previous book, Blood Horses, was an extended meditation on the horse, adapted from a gripping cover story he wrote for Harper’s Magazine in 2002, “Horseman, Pass By.” I remember thinking it was one of the best magazine stories I had read in ages—a perfect blend of reportage, personal essay, cultural criticism, and amateur-historian musings.
Pulphead follows in this same tradition, collecting much of Sullivan’s magazine writing over the past decade. The book’s pieces appeared originally in GQ, Harper’s (where Sullivan currently serves as a contributing editor), the Paris Review (where he is “southern editor”), and the Oxford American (where he was an assistant editor in the late ’90s). Sullivan has retooled them a bit here, so that they can speak more directly to the writerly preoccupations that lay behind them, and fit alongside each other in a more cohesive whole.
Sullivan’s prose is unpretentious and self-assured. He channels an innate sense of storytelling, coupled with a love for, and knowledge of, southern literature; the end result calls to mind some of the best New Journalism of the ’60s and ’70s. Sullivan’s essays stay with you, like good short stories—and