Pulphead

Pulphead: Notes from the Other Side of America - John Jeremiah Sullivan There is this strange thing with the US and its culture. We all know all about them and they know not a thing about us. If two people from different countries or even continents meet up, the conversation often gyrates around American (usually pop) culture. It’s the common ground. When I moved to America for a year when I was 18, I didn’t suffer a severe cultural shock (although I was a little frightened by the size of hamburgers). I knew the TV shows those kids watched, the music they listened to, and the celebrities they admired. This phenomenon is sometimes bad, especially because it is not reciprocal, but at least I could read Sullivan’s collection of essays without having to google everything. If this was, for example, ‘Pulphead: Dispatched from the Other Side of Poland’, it would need extensive footnotes for anyone outside of Poland to be able to understand it. That, of course, would ruin the narrative.And the narrative in ‘Pulphead’ is nothing short of amazing. It’s not only my opinion, many reviewers agree, so much that they hope he will start writing literary fiction (which is understood to be a somehow more sophisticated form). To that Sullivan says: "That genre snobbery conceals a deeper stupidity. If you look back to Defoe and that early-18th-century period when the genres as we know them were being extruded, you find it gets messy. The categories people like to play with when doing that hierarchy of genres don't exist; they don't hold up to investigation, they're all feeding into each other and borrowing techniques from one another.”Here I suppose the cultural differences kick in for me. In Poland, it’s the ‘reportage’ that seems to be the ultimate literary form (just think Kapuściński), taken most seriously. Sometimes you can even get the impression that fiction is considered a pastime suitable for schoolgirls only. There are literary journals which only deal with essays, interviews and poetry, as if fiction was not good enough.I suppose I should start reviewing the actual book now, because I feel I’m getting side-tracked here. So what does Sullivan actually write about? To be honest – anything. He shares insightful personal stories, like the one about his brother, who after being electrocuted, spent two months in a sort of a bizarre daze. Or the beautiful story about a family trip to Disneyworld. At other times he goes on exploring some extremely niche subject distilling it to the point the average reader will actually give a damn, be it a story of deciphering obscure blues lyrics or exploring Native American cave paintings. He likes to hang out with all these people that we only know as caricatures, like the Christian rock fans (rocking on for Jesus), the Tea Party members, or The Real World cast offs. I will come clean here and say I did have to google The Real World, as somehow for the past 30 years I have lived in a Real-world-free-world. Don’t ask me how, I don’t know myself – that thing is huge! It might because each time anyone mentioned the Real World I assumed they were talking about the actual real world. It’s also probably because I absolutely hate reality tv. And this is not me being snobbish, because, we all know well, I will happily admit to many questionable entertainment choices, it’s just reality shows I can’t stand. Reality TV, let’s be honest, is just stupid people talking. And I know, as an aspiring novelist, I should probably pay more attention to them, they might just tell me something that smart people haven’t noticed, but I can’t bring myself to watch it. It’s too tiring. But that, again, is beside the point.Sullivan often goes back to Indiana, the state where he grew up, to investigate some little known facts from the lives of famous musicians who are also Hoosiers (that means someone from Indiana. I learnt a new word! But maybe it’s offensive, I don’t know. Better don’t use it in public.), and that is Michael Jackson and Axl Rose. And let me tell you, the piece on Michael Jackson, was the best piece on Michael Jackson I’ve ever read and I’ve read many because when he died I was working in a boring job.Recently, I decided I would accompany my reviews with cooking, because why not? Everybody likes a little bit of food porn, right? So for ‘Pulphead’ I decided to cook something typical of Indiana, as that state features so heavily in the book. I’m not going to pretend I hold American cuisine in a great esteem but I’m not dismissing it either. They must’ve come up with some good corn-based dishes in all those years. Apparently the most classic thing for Indiana is its Pork-tenderloin Sandwich. It’s basically a pork schnitzel bigger than a human head, deep fried and stuck in a hamburger bun. So not exactly ground-breaking, but decent comfort food. As a Polish person I shouldn’t have anything to say against pork schnitzel as it’s our Sunday classic. I used this recipe (some REAL Hoosier said it was authentic) http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/food-network-kitchens/hoosier-pork-tenderloin-sandwich-recipe/index.html, although I didn’t use Wondra instant flour (wtf is that anyway?). It’s funny how so many American recipes list ingredients that need a trademark next to them. Just look at this baby! I was defeated in the end and didn’t finish it, but I put up a good fight! (That marinade actually truly kicks ass, I think buttermilk and garlic is the secret. Also I didn’t deep fry it, deep frying scares me.)* Please note, I’m reviewing here the UK version of Pulphead which has apparently been slightly amplified.