John Jeremiah Sullivan's shift from first to third

The author wants to dump the voice that made him famous

Shifting from first to third

(Peter Taylor)

John Jeremiah Sullivan is growing tired of his best narrator, the one who appears in his most famous work. It’s a problem. He accepts that. The narrator has guided readers through worlds both fantastic and strange—Christian rock festivals, the Gulf Coast after Katrina, Disneyland under a marijuana fog—and his presence on the page is responsible, in no small part, for Sullivan doing what he does now, which is write full-time for some of the most prestigious publications in the world, including, most recently, the New York Times Magazine. And yet he’s ready to leave him behind. “I’m a little sick of that guy,” he says.

Complicating all of this is that Sullivan writes non-fiction, so the narrator is himself. It isn’t like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killing off Sherlock Holmes. It’s more like Sullivan offing the version of himself most readers know. At some point, he says, “the character doesn’t serve anymore. You don’t feel like you can really write behind his mask with legitimacy . . . My new bosses might not like to hear that. But I really want to try something different that’s moving into a more complete third person.”

Sullivan, whose second book, Pulphead, was released late last year, first broke into the publishing world with an essay in Harper’s Magazine in 2002. But he made his name with a series of stories for GQ, most of which are collected in Pulphead and feature the same slightly exaggerated pastiche of himself as narrator. Sullivan considers that person a character, someone he consciously created. His best pieces, he believes, are the ones where he followed it as far as he could.

The resulting pieces are essays of a kind. But they blend reporting, memoir and cultural criticism in a way that’s hard to quantify. Structurally they often go in surprising directions. “Upon This Rock,” the first and probably best story in Pulphead, is a perfect example. It starts with Sullivan trying to hitch a ride to a Christian rock festival. The expectation is that it’s a takedown; you’re ready for him to laugh at the believers he encounters. Instead, he ends up painting a slyly sympathetic portrait of that world, or at least the people in it.

In some ways, Sullivan is not unlike his fellow GQ writer George Saunders—whose 2007 collection The Braindead Megaphone had a similar mix of stranger-in-a-strange-world reported essays. Along with other writers like Elif Batuman, they’re forming a new breed of American essayists. In the tradition of Norman Mailer, Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace, they write deeply observational and distinctively first-person work. But there’s also an interesting sense of insecure irony to each of them.

What ties them together is their presence on the page. If the New Yorker style—where the writer is largely absent from the prose—is one ideal of a magazine piece, Sullivan and his ilk represent the opposite vision. (Batuman writes for the New Yorker, but her work there lacks the vitality of her best stories.) In Sullivan’s case, whether he’s tracking Axl Rose through a European tour, interviewing the stars of MTV’s The Real World or eating frogs with evangelicals in the Ozarks, his narrator is always guiding the reader through, serving as a stand-in, even—at least he has until now.

Sullivan’s first piece for the New York Times Magazine was about visiting Disneyland with a friend and their families. He sees that as the last of a set, a bit of a victory lap for the character in the Pulphead stories. The problem is, he’s not 100 per cent sure what’s next. “Honestly, I’m kind of figuring it out right now,” he says. “My writing is changing. It’s starting to sound different. I don’t know exactly where it’s going.”

Sullivan has had problems writing his first few pieces for the Times (the most recent, “My debt to Ireland,” was published on Feb. 12). But he sees that as a good thing. His best work, he thinks, comes when he’s not really sure where he’s going, or even exactly what he’s trying to say.“There’s nothing more tedious,” he says, “than an essayist—for me, anyway—who really knows what he thinks.”

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.