Though many of the articles collected here illuminate the surfaces of popular culture, the best of them go deeper into the heart of America.
Most of these essays are reported pieces, some of them profiles (of musical artists Bunny Wailer and Axl Rose), others long-form feature stories (on a Christian rock festival, reality TV, the Tea Party revolt). Yet New York Times Magazine contributing writer Sullivan (Blood Horses: Notes of a Sportswriter's Son, 2004) is always inherently a part of these stories, conscious of himself as an observer and of his perspective as an interpreter, though never gratuitously or self-indulgently intrusive. As a writer for publications ranging from GQ to the Paris Review (where he is the southern editor), the native Kentuckian now living in North Carolina shows his familiarity with what one piece terms “the tragic spell of the South,” whether he’s writing about his complicated relationship with a literary mentor or rekindling memories of an evangelical past while bonding with believers at a music festival. Throughout, he recognizes the danger of “a too-easy eloquence,” and his appreciation of the “unknowable” Michael Jackson in particular challenges a facile understanding. As is usually the case in such collections, some of the pieces are slighter than others, though none seem journalistically dated. Even “At a Shelter (After Katrina)” comes alive on the page through the vividness of its sensory detail. Sullivan’s ambition is evident and suggests that he has a much bigger book in him, whether he’s examining “a historical portal [where] you could slip into it and get behind the eyes of the American mind for a minute” or contemplating “the future of the human race” (hint: It involves a war against the animal world, which may have some scientific basis or may be a flight of fantasy).
Mostly impressive work from a writer who frequently causes readers to challenge their own perspectives.