“Why’s this so good?” No. 71: John Jeremiah Sullivan and “Upon This Rock”
Last summer, John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote an essay about Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!, and amid his deft and borderline genius thoughts on the novel – “It…dramatize[s] historical consciousness itself, not just human lives but the forest of time in which the whole notion of human life must find its only meaning” – Sullivan said something telling about his own writing and how he approaches many of his stories:
A fundamental law of storytelling is: withhold information. As the writer Paul Metcalf put it, “The only real work in creative endeavor is to keep things from falling together too soon.”
Bear that in mind, because we’re about to consider “Upon This Rock,” a GQ story that I’ve read probably 15 times since it was published in 2004. It is not only Sullivan’s signature piece but also a great example of a writer having patience, revealing what he truly wants to say only at the appropriate moment, which in this case comes about halfway through the piece. Sullivan is much too smart to work within the shadows of an inverted pyramid, and the story is better – memorable; re-readable – because of it.
The piece is about a trip Sullivan made to the largest Christian Rock festival in the country, the Creation Festival, in rural Pennsylvania. What I love about any of Sullivan’s stories, but especially this one, is his command of the language. The man can flat-out craft a sentence. He can do pathos, he can echo (without mimicking) the flourishes of other writers, and he can do humor. That’s what the reader gets a taste of right away. Sullivan identifies, and comments upon, his day-to-day shitstorms with ease. Here he is after realizing that GQ booked him an RV, the only rental available within 100 miles of the festival:
The reason twenty-nine feet is such a common length for RVs, I presume, is that once a vehicle gets much longer, you need a special permit to drive it. That would mean forms and fees, possibly even background checks. But show up at any RV joint with your thigh stumps lashed to a skateboard, crazily waving your hooks-for-hands, screaming you want that twenty-nine-footer out back for a trip to you ain’t sayin’ where, and all they want to know is: Credit or debit, tiny sir?
He keeps it coming. The employee who rings up the 29-footer is a woman named Debbie. “She was a lot to love,” Sullivan writes, “with a face as sweet as birthday cake beneath spray-hardened bangs.” (Do you not immediately know this woman?) Meanwhile, the inside of the RV, “smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun.” Outside, a man named Jack helps Sullivan inspect everything else:
We toured the outskirts of my soon-to-be mausoleum. It took time. Every single thing Jack said, somehow, was the only thing I’d need to remember. White water, gray water, black water (drinking, showering, le devoir). Here’s your this, never ever that. Grumbling about “weekend warriors.” I couldn’t listen, because listening would mean accepting it as real, though his casual mention of the vast blind spot in the passenger-side mirror squeaked through, as did his description of the “extra two feet on each side”—the bulge of my living quarters—which I wouldn’t be able to see but would want to “be conscious of” out there. Debbie followed us with a video camera, for insurance purposes. I saw my loved ones gathered in a mahogany-paneled room to watch this footage; them being forced to hear me say, “What if I never use the toilet—do I still have to switch on the water?”
It is so much fun to read a John Jeremiah Sullivan story.
And for a great while – for about 2,500, words in fact – that’s what “Upon This Rock” is: fun. We learn of Sullivan screaming, “No! No! No! No!” as he merges onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike; of heavy traffic and idling vehicles miles before the Creation exit and the girl one car over blowing crisp notes on a ram’s horn; of Sullivan’s eventual entrance into the festival and the great throngs of Christians – tens of thousands! hundreds of thousands! – moving about him and the RV, the vast majority of them under the age of 18 and all but, say, four of them white. Sullivan takes pains to say that the Creation Festival’s expanse is endless:
I drove so far. You wouldn’t have thought this thing could go on so far. Every other bend in the road opened onto a whole new cove full of tents and cars; the encampment had expanded to its physiographic limits, pushing right up to the feet of the ridges.
He says all this for a reason: He’s setting up the next turn in the story. And the RV, that yuck of a set piece from the narrative’s first third, helps guide the reader through the transition.
There is no place to park his beast, not until a kid on a bike motions to Sullivan to follow him up a steep hill, at the top of which, Sullivan presumes, the RV can at last rest peacefully. But then the incline begins to overpower the 29-footer: “…the little bell in my spine warn[ed] me that the RV had reached a degree of tilt she was not engineered to handle,” Sullivan writes. And the only thing to save him – and untold hundreds of Christians below – is a man with a thick West Virginian accent shouting at him to “JACK THE WILL TO THE ROT” – while braking hard. So Sullivan jacks the wheel to the right, breaks hard, and the vehicle stops. Then the voice tells him to hit the gas on three and, miraculously, the old girl grinds upward again, with some “freakishly powerful beings” pushing from behind. Soon, the RV mounts the hill and the voice and freaky-strong things identify themselves: Darius, Jake, Ritter, Josh, Bub, and Pee Wee, all in their early 20s, all from West Virginia and all, as Ritter tells Sullivan, “on fire for Christ.”
Sullivan surprises the reader here. Thus far, he has been a sneering East Coaster on an anthropologic mission to rural-most Christendom. The reader might expect him, now that he has at last confronted the natives in their habitat, to sneer some more at their simple ardent faith. Instead, Sullivan gives us a touching, nuanced group portrait. The West Virginians know the Bible cold and are something approaching biblical scholars – and yet they’re rustic, too, living off game back in Braxton County and knowing which plants can serve as accoutrements to a meal and which ones can cure ailments. Sullivan does not laugh at any of this. And he asks us not to either. “In their lives, they had known terrific violence,” Sullivan writes. And here the sympathy for the West Virginians builds:
Half of their childhood friends had been murdered—shot or stabbed over drugs or nothing. Others had killed themselves. Darius’s grandfather, great-uncle, and onetime best friend had all committed suicide. When Darius was growing up, his father was in and out of jail; at least once, his father had done hard time. In Ohio he stabbed a man in the chest (the man had refused to stop “pounding on” Darius’s grandfather). Darius caught a lot of grief—”Your daddy’s a jailbird!”—during those years. He’d carried a chip on his shoulder from that.
“You came up pretty rough,” Sullivans says.
“Not really,” Darius responds. “Some people ain’t got hands and feet.” And, besides, he adds: “I gave all that to God—all that anger and stuff. He took it away.”
What a concise encapsulation of one’s character, and one’s faith. You’d think that in an 11,000-word story Sullivan would lean toward verbosity. I would argue he wastes not one word in this whole thing.
Never is this truer than in the piece’s discussion of music at the Creation Festival. There is in fact very little discussion of music at the Creation Festival. Sullivan doesn’t think it worth his time:
For their encore, Jars of Clay did a cover of U2′s “All I Want Is You.” It was bluesy.
That’s the last thing I’ll be saying about the bands.
He’s lying, but not by much. Sullivan decides that if he won’t talk about the music, he’ll use his surroundings – the music festival itself – to advance the narrative. And it’s here, halfway through the piece, as Sullivan listens to a band named Skillet, that the story opens itself wide. Sullivan is shocked to discover that Skillet’s lead singer is a guy Sullivan grew up with. Sullivan, the reader then learns, was once an evangelist himself. This revelation is the story’s gift, made all the better for how long Sullivan waited for readers to open it.
And now we can’t read the words fast enough. This guy, the one who just called young Christians “little fuckers,” this guy was once an evangelist? How? Why? And this was once an evangelist business – what happened?
Sullivan takes his time explaining because by now he knows we’ll follow him right to the core of his teenage self: He attempted to convert the masses wherever the masses needed converting. And as if to prove his evangelical bona fides, Sullivan later breaks from his bio and gives us this beautiful snippet of conversation following an exchange he and the West Virginians have with a small band of girls, who are trying to tell the guys that they can’t eat frogs:
“Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend,” Darius said, “I will eat no flesh while the world standeth.”
“First Corinthians,” I said.
“8:13,” Darius said.
That “I said” says it all, doesn’t it?
Okay, but what happened? Well, in short, Sullivan gained his faith for the same reason he lost it: He loved how his young brothers and sisters in Christ intellectualized the ancient texts. But as they applied their grad-school fervor to the Good Book, Sullivan began to read works outside it, works not on any Christian-Youth-approved list. These books introduced new ideas, contradictory but no less reasonable ideas, and his faith began to ebb. Sullivan lays all this out for us page upon page, section after section. It is riveting stuff.
And it is the reason I love “Upon This Rock.” For all its literary pyrotechnics, the story succeeds because of its structural restraint.
From here, Sullivan could have gone the route of Christopher Hitchens, say, ridiculing a religion he was too smart to fall for. But Sullivan ends the story with one last surprise: He is haunted by the faith he has lost. “I love Jesus Christ,” Sullivan writes. This opens the story wider still, because who among us has not lost someone or something and regretted it? Sullivan is speaking to every one of us when he writes:
He was the most beautiful dude. Forget the Epistles, forget all the bullying stuff that came later. Look at what He said. Read The Jefferson Bible. Or better yet, read The Logia of Yeshua, by Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia, an unadorned translation of all the sayings ascribed to Jesus that modern scholars deem authentic. There’s your man. His breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness. Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what’s fragile and what suffers—there lies sanity. And salvation. “Let anyone who has power renounce it,” he said. “Your father is compassionate to all, as you should be.” That’s how He talked, to those who knew Him.
He doesn’t say the word regret but he doesn’t have to. His appreciation of Jesus shows how much Sullivan still yearns for his comfort, but intellectually and emotionally he can’t accept the love. Sullivan admits to envying the West Virginians now:
They were crazy, and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I never was capable of. Because knowing it isn’t true doesn’t mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were.
We’re a long way from the snide commentary of the beginning. To feel this piece evolve as you read it is the true miracle of it, regardless of whether God told Sullivan to exercise restraint.
Paul Kix is a general editor at ESPN the Magazine. He tweets at @paulkix.
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