There's a chapter called "Unnamed Caves" in which Sullivan goes into the newly discovered caves of the Cumberland Plateau to see some of the art preserved there.
It's a deep obsession of his, one worthy of another book.
“I understand where you might be coming from,” he writes. I have it on tape.” This is a crucial part of the JJS ethos: he’s not too cool to be stunned. JJS pairs them with an emotional nakedness and vulnerability unlike anything else I’m aware of in what writing workshops call “creative non-fiction.” Mary Karr, maybe. Down the line JJS hangs out with washed-up reality stars, and stalks the last surviving member of Bob Marley’s Wailers in Jamaica.
He lets his house be used as a location for the TV show He muses on the strange life of Axl Rose: Guns ‘n’ Roses “were the last great rock band that didn’t think there was something a bit embarrassing about being in a rock band.” (In journalism, when you write a profile of a person without actually being able to talk to that person, it’s called a “write-around.” This is the greatest write-around ever written-around.) There are problems with JJS’s best subject is himself, and the line goes a little slack sometimes when he’s not in play, as in his historical essay on the naturalist Constantine Rafinesque.
It’s also not published with anything like the gravitas JJS has earned. Though DFW might be a better comparison, actually, except that JJS isn’t quite as clever as DFW (who is?
The title is too faux-cool (as is the flap copy—in my experience anything billed as “mind-bending” won’t actually bend your mind). ), and on the plus side, he never makes the mistake of taking himself too seriously. Maybe that’s the key to JJS: he’s a man who happens to have been born in trivial times, and he meets a lot of trivial people, but he treats it all so very, very seriously.The book leads off with “Upon this Rock,” his epic account of a Christian rock festival called Creation, which he attended in a 29-foot RV.“Jesus had never been in this RV.” JJS seems to be magnetized: interesting things just automatically happen around him, or maybe he just notices them more than other people. So good was it, I thought, that when picked its favorite long-form essays of the week, mine would be among them. After I read his DFW essay, I made it my business to become something of a JJS scholar. I did this partly because I enjoyed reading his work, but also so I could bite his style more effectively. Even more galling, they had included and it was by John Jeremiah Sullivan. JJS, as I have come to think of him, may be the best essayist of his generation." in which the reason for his obsession with whatever it is he's writing about becomes clear.In "Upon This Rock," it's when he hears Petra at a Christian rock festival and flashes back to his time as an evangelical acolyte.He does everything I wish I could do as an essayist.The hunt would have been easier if I’d had JJS’s new essay collection, which comes out this week.Stylistically, Sullivan is erudite and with-it without being overly flashy or self-conscious.He appears to have read and listened to everything.