Betts and Price: Filling the empty space

Published 10:15 am Monday, May 28, 2012

Who writes for us now?

The question came up again with the death of Doris Betts, the beloved teacher and writer, a few weeks ago, reminding us that we have still not gotten used to a North Carolina without Reynolds Price although he died more than a year ago.

D.G. Martin

Even non-readers miss them. Their storytelling wisdom had spread like ripples from their readers and students into a wider audience.

Are there other North Carolina writers and teachers to take their places?

Yes. Price and Betts trained and encouraged an army of followers. Think Lee Smith. Think about her husband, Hal Crowther, whose biting essays drag us mercilessly to a painfully enhanced understanding of our society’s failures.

As reported recently in this column, two recent first novels by North Carolina natives introduced us to authors who fall squarely in the Price-Betts tradition. Wiley Cash (“A Land More Kind than Home”) and Ben Fountain (“Billy Lynn’s Last Halftime Walk”).

Unfortunately for us, both Cash and Fountain are now based away from home– Cash in West Virginia and Fountain in Texas.

But, thankfully, there is also an immigration of talent into our state, drawn here undoubtedly by the tradition that Betts and Price fostered.

One of the new immigrant talents is John Jeremiah Sullivan, a Wilmington resident since 2004. His “Pulphead: Essays,” like Hal Crowther’s work, demands reflection and sometimes leads to self-conviction. But the essays also entertain and educate by turning Sullivan’s life’s experiences into compelling literature.

“Pulphead” gained national critical attention in 2011: A “New York Times” notable book; an “Entertainment Weekly” top 10 nonfiction book; a “Time” top 10 nonfiction book; one of “Library Journal’s” best books.

In the article naming “Pulphead” one of the “Boston Globe’s” best nonfiction books of 2011, Michael Washburn wrote that the book is “devastatingly, sublimely good …. Sullivan revitalizes fringe events, mis-appreciated moments, and forgotten figures, from Christian rock festivals and Michael Jackson’s first performance of ‘Billie Jean’ to spectral, nearly forgotten blues singers, in idiosyncratic, warm-hearted, ribald, and slantwise essays….close to replacing the Great American Novel with the Great American Essay.”

Accompanying Amazon’s selection of “Pulphead” as one of the best books of the month in November 2011, Neal Thompson wrote, “What a fresh and daring voice. John Jeremiah Sullivan is a dynamic and gutsy writer, a cross between Flannery O’Connor and a decaffeinated Tom Wolfe, with just the right dash of Hunter S. Thompson. In fourteen essays ranging from an Axl Rose profile to an RV trek to a Christian rock festival to the touching story of his brother’s near-death electrocution, Sullivan writes funny, beautiful, and very real sentences. The sum of these stories portrays a real America, including the vast land between the coasts. Staying just this side of cynical, Sullivan displays respect for his subjects, no matter how freakish they may seem….”

“Pulphead’s” opening essay records Sullivan’s attendance at a Christian rock festival. As a skeptical journalist, Sullivan intends to probe the Christian rock music genre. But surrounded by a small group of hard-core evangelical Christian good old boys, Sullivan remembers and reflects upon his own “Jesus phase,” all the while delivering snide slams at the mediocrity of the music at the festival. It turned out to be rock music on a Christian leash, a formula that led neither to good music nor good religion.

North Carolina movie and TV fans will identify with the book’s final essay. It describes Sullivan’s family’s experience renting their home in Wilmington for the production of the TV series “One Tree Hill.”

In between are 12 other provocative pieces, each of which proves the talents of this new voice, whom Doris Betts and Reynolds Price would be proud to welcome into North Carolina’s literary pantheon.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” on Sundays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.