In the essays in Pulphead, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Paris Review Southern Editor, encounters some of the nation’s weirdest cultural phenomena.
In one of your essays, your life gets taken over by the teen soap opera One Tree Hill. How did that happen?
We live in Wilmington, N.C., where One Tree Hill is filmed, and the show paid us to use our house as the on-screen home of a lead character, Peyton. She lived partly in our house and partly on a set, so watching the show was disorienting—she’d be walking down our hallway, and then turn into an unfamiliar room. It was fascinating to spy on the sausage-making of a show like that, but there was too much metaphysical interpenetration between fantasy and reality, and that was troubling after a while. They introduced a character who was a psychotic stalker , and he tied up two girls and had this macabre mini-prom in our basement. It got really tawdry.
In another collision between fantasy and reality, you hung out with cast members of The Real World at a corporate-sponsored party. Was that hell or nirvana?
It flickered back and forth, like one of those Cracker Jack prizes with two different pictures. There were people who were giving their lives to follow the Miz [a Real World personality] around, who had driven across states to party with him—some of the lostest people I’d ever encountered. I got the feeling it would grow toward hell.
How did you survive that Christian rock festival?
I do take a kind of pleasure from Christian rock’s relentless badness. I had an intense youthful experience with evangelicalism, so even though the people I met at the festival were dining on fresh-caught frogs legs, they were a lot like guys I grew up with. There were songs we could agree on—gospel songs, and Jamaican songs that we were really getting into together. But then the Christian rock would come on and they would go listen; its badness didn’t matter to them, because it had other work to do. I would just curl up in my trailer and rock myself.
Surveying the history of American pop culture, do you see any common themes?
The pieces [in the book] are all over the place, but “the South’s history and music” describes pretty much every one. My fixation is Southern Enlightenment: times and places when the South has gone against the country’s low expectations of it and offered up sources of inspiration—like the blues, which I write about as a kind of art music. These are sketches toward that larger project.