The Real World

Sullivan, de Waal, and Leibovitz take a look.

Did you hear the one about the dog that shot its owner? Writer John Jeremiah Sullivan did. The incident happened in Memphis, and the shot may have been an accident. Or it could have been on purpose, because the dog’s owner was apparently arguing with his girlfriend when the bullet was fired. This according to Sullivan’s essay “Violence of the Lambs” in his book of 14 previously published essays, Pulphead (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

And did you know that dolphins are waging war on mankind?

Marcus Livengood, former professor of biology (he’s since been fired) at a college in the Midwest, claims that animals are violently turning on humans in record numbers. Livengood is tracking those numbers, and he believes that planet Earth is in for an Armageddon across the bio-terrain. Where does this put dolphins? At the forefront of the battle lines, because under their sonic command, other deep-ocean creatures have been instructed to paralyze the planet’s shipping lanes.

“Their hatred of us is essentially bottomless,” Livengood says of dolphins. It’s what he said to Sullivan, again in the essay “Violence of the Lambs.” But Marcus Livengood didn’t, in fact, say it to John Jeremiah Sullivan. Sullivan made up the figure of Livengood. He admits as much at the end of the essay. But he adds:

“I did not fabricate a single one of the animal-related facts or stories, the incidents. There’s even a real-life guy on the Internet whom I could have used in place of the made-up Marc, but that got messy, because he wanted money, and anyway, he seemed insane.”

“Big parts of this piece I made up,” Sullivan repeats. “I didn’t want to say that, but the editors are making me, because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories, and because they want to distance themselves from me. Fine.”

Fine, then, for the editors. But do not distance yourself from the pleasures of Pulphead, a collection of essays (some of them nationally prize-winning) from a writer who’s written for The Paris Review, GQ, Harper’s, and The Oxford American. He’s also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine. And he’s inspired comparisons to the work of David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese. It’s quite all right, though, to think of Sullivan all to himself — a writer who can skillfully combine the autobiographical with the reportorial. 

Watch, then, as Sullivan, in “Mr. Lytle: An Essay,” sees to the physical upkeep of writer Andrew Lytle, the aged Agrarian at the University of the South, the school Sullivan had dropped out of when he went to care for Lytle. See Sullivan, in “Upon This Rock,” make honest but never smarmy observations during his visit to a Christian rock festival in rural Pennsylvania, though he does admit to hearing “not a single interesting bar of music.” Sullivan’s appreciative profiles of Axl Rose, Michael Jackson, and Bunny Wailer? Models of fair handling in the face of behavior beyond the bizarre. 

Middle Tennessee cave art? Sullivan’s down with it — literally. A guy named “The Miz,” star of The Real World? Sullivan’s a fan of both the Miz and, surprisingly, the show, and he’s positively refreshing on a topic one would have thought done to death: reality television.

TV teen melodrama One Tree Hill? The house belonging to a character named Peyton actually belongs to Sullivan and his wife in Wilmington, North Carolina. He agreed to let the filmmakers in, and he’s lived to regret it. Fans can’t forget it: They’re outside the house these days still, he says, taking pictures.

And Sullivan’s brother is back on his feet after being nearly shocked to death while standing shoeless, guitar in hand, at a microphone. His recovery from a coma was, doctors agreed, “miraculous,” which meant it needed public restaging, and it was, starring Sullivan’s brother, who reenacted the electrocution in an episode of the TV show Reality 911, hosted by William Shatner.

For a real shocker, though, there’s Sullivan in among the crowd in Washington, D.C., on September 12, 2009. The occasion: the Tea Party’s “9/12 March.” Title of essay: “American Grotesque.” It makes the essays on uncovering an obscure blues lyric in “Unknown Bards” and on an eccentric, early-American naturalist named Constantine Rafinesque all the more welcome as topics after John Jeremiah Sullivan’s own heart.   


History Lessons: What is one of the best nonfiction books of 2011? A book originally published in 2010. It’s Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (now in paperback from Picador), which is earning the big readership it deserves after a year’s worth of critical acclaim and great word-of-mouth.

The story it tells is more than a nineteenth- and twentieth-century history of an enormously wealthy banking family, the Ephrussis, with roots in Odessa and branches in Vienna and Paris. It’s a meditation on the very nature of collecting, which the Ephrussis did on a grand scale, whether it be in fine art, the decorative arts, or objects as lowly (but exquisitely carved) as netsuke, the Japanese wood and ivory figurines — 264 total — that the family passed down from one generation to the next. But the book is also a harrowing look at the anti-Semitism and Holocaust that even the richest of assimilated European Jews could not escape.

The Ephrussi netsuke (including a carved hare with amber eyes) did manage to escape the destruction of World War II Vienna. After the war, they traveled back to Japan in the hands of one family member; they’ve ended up today in England and in the hands of author Edmund de Waal, himself a son of the extended Ephrussi family.

Who would have guessed that de Waal, a world-recognized ceramicist, could also write so perceptively, so movingly of his family and of their extraordinary possessions? And who could have guessed that de Waal’s great-uncle Rudolf, having escaped the German Reich, would be sending to his loved ones in Europe a newspaper photo with the following caption: “Rudolf Ephrussi, Baron Ephrussi as he would have been in the old country, a long, good-looking lad, teasing the latest tunes out of his saxophone”?

Rudolf had gotten permission to immigrate to the U.S. in the late 1930s. He’d secured a job for a cotton company. That newspaper clipping was from The Paragould Soliphone. The town where Rudolf temporarily settled: Paragould, Arkansas.


Object Lessons: What do Georgia O’Keeffe’s handmade pastels, Eleanor Roosevelt’s silver serving dish, Sigmund Freud’s rug-covered couch, Annie Oakley’s riding boots, John Muir’s botanical specimens, Louisa May Alcott’s writing desk (plus Old Faithful, Niagara Falls, Walden Pond, and Robert Smithson’s earthwork Spiral Jetty) have in common with Gladys Presley’s clothes closet at Graceland?

They were all in the eye of the beholder, photographer Annie Leibovitz, and the photos she took make up her latest collection, Pilgrimage (Random House), which gathers more than a hundred color shots and not a single soul is in sight. Which doesn’t make these photographs any less revealing as portraits. They’re portraits that do indeed beautifully evoke the missing figures associated with them. Take Graceland.

Leibovitz did, in several shots of it or in it. In addition to that clothes closet (and a photo of the interior of Elvis’ boyhood home in Tupelo), you’ll find Graceland’s staircase reflected in the dining room’s smoked mirrors; a dark, outdoor shot of the mansion (with the lights to Elvis’ bedroom lit); Grandmother Minnie Mae’s sunglasses; Elvis’ Harley; Elvis’ turntable; a shattered TV screen with gunshot hole; and a ghostly Meditation Garden.

In her introduction to Pilgrimage, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin concludes that Leibovitz “has captured the spirit of the people and the places in this book as surely as thousands of words could ever do.”

That’s true. But it’s also true that except for Leibovitz’s captions, there are no words here (as there are about the other trips she took for this book) by the photographer herself on her pilgrimage to Memphis — why she came, what she sought. Let these haunting images, then, speak for themselves.


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