This got lost in the shuffle of the book coming out and my subsequent trips to Alsace, Berlin, and London– I reviewed John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead (FSG) for Writing in Public, a book which took me slightly outside of my comfort zone as a reader but which was well worth it. An excerpt:
Sullivan is a study in contrasts: a one-time born-again Christian and a liberal-minded critic, a Southerner and a darling of the New York literati, a goofy dude and a sober social conscience. He is, therefore, in an ideal position to explore the shady byways of American identity. His essay on the Tea Party, “American Grotesque,” features just this kind of intellectual magnanimity, even if he does (as he must) eventually come down on “our side” of the fence. “Today is September 12, 2009. We are marching,” he writes. We begin to meet the other marchers: “I want my America back,” reads one of their placards. It isn’t clear for certain whose America the sign refers to until we see another sign of Nancy Pelosi’s enlarged face, into whose open mouth the crowd is tossing Lipton tea bags. “It’s only fair,” Sullivan comments. “Liberals made fun of us because, at first, we didn’t know what ‘tea-bagging’ meant (…) Now we’re turning the joke back on them.” In the very next paragraph, we see a person standing on a garbage can wearing an Obama mask and a little gold crown, sporting “a bright purple pimp’s coat with faux-leopard-skim trim.”
Throughout this first part of the essay, Sullivan casts himself as a reasonably-minded member of an unspecified political rally. As he begins to mention its heroes— “[Glenn] Beck is an entertainer. We love him, but he goes over the top” — we know we’re at a Tea Party gathering, and we’re confused about what we’re doing there. It’s not until after the rally, back at the hotel, that it becomes clear why Sullivan has included himself in the “we” of the lunatic fringes of the Republican Party: he is there with his first cousin, an insurance executive from Kentucky whose politics are radically different from Sullivan’s. He gets into it with his cousin: “Didn’t the crap those people were spewing originate in the e-mail accounts of lobbyists and ‘former CEOs’ and other cynically interested types? Why else would these citizens purport to fear ‘socialized medicine‘ so intensely?” By the end of the essay, Sullivan is wishing his cousin luck and hoping for him to fail.