Friday, November 18, 2011

Go See This Guy: John Jeremiah Sullivan at Nashville Public Library Saturday

Posted By on Fri, Nov 18, 2011 at 9:23 AM

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Somebody sent me a link to a remembrance John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote of the late novelist and Fugitive Andrew Lytle, published last year in The Paris Review. I'm surprised it didn't cause a scandal in my hometown of Murfreesboro, where Lytle remains a legend. Not that people would have been all that surprised by some of the rascally behavior Sullivan recounts, but because literary remembrances of this kind are rarely so candid and forthcoming about their subjects' faults. That's the problem with most eulogies: it's the flaws that fix people in our memories as human beings — the crusted shells that offset the pearls. (Randall Jarrell once said something to this effect, only a lot better.)

Anyway. The typically reserved person who sent me Sullivan's link included the endorsement, "This motherfucker can write!" Maybe it's too late to slap this money quote on the jacket for Sullivan's highly lauded new essay collection Pulphead, but it fits. (Hey, there's always the paperback.) As proof, here's the first graph of Sullivan's piece, which restores the color to its subject's cheeks with each fresh detail:

When I was twenty years old, I became a kind of apprentice to a man named Andrew Lytle, whom pretty much no one apart from his negligibly less ancient sister, Polly, had addressed except as Mister Lytle in at least a decade. She called him Brother. Or Brutha—I don’t suppose either of them had ever voiced a terminal r. His two grown daughters did call him Daddy. Certainly I never felt even the most obscure impulse to call him Andrew, or “old man,” or any other familiarism, though he frequently gave me to know it would be all right if I were to call him mon vieux. He, for his part, called me boy, and beloved, and once, in a letter, “Breath of My Nostrils.” He was about to turn ninety-two when I moved into his basement, and he had not yet quite reached ninety-three when they buried him the next winter, in a coffin I had helped to make—a cedar coffin, because it would smell good, he said. I wasn’t that helpful. I sat up a couple of nights in a freezing, starkly lit workshop rubbing beeswax into the boards. The other, older men—we were four altogether—absorbedly sawed and planed. They chiseled dovetail joints. My experience in woodworking hadn’t gone past feeding planks through a band saw for shop class, and there’d be no time to redo anything I might botch, so I followed instructions and with rags cut from an undershirt worked coats of wax into the cedar until its ashen whorls glowed purple, as if with remembered life.

Sullivan will appear at Nashville Public Library 1 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday, Nov. 19) as part of Humanities Tennessee's Salon @ 615 series. Will he read from his GQ and Harper's essays, his epic takes on Axl Rose and a Christian music festival, or from the Lytle piece? It's worth attending to find out (especially since the event is free and open to the public). Stop by on the your way to or from Parnassus.

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