Such moments occur again and again in Sullivan’s work.
In the same essay, he mentions his father, who is shocked into life by a brief bolt of story: “My father was a great Mark Twain fanatic—he got fired from the only teaching job he ever held for keeping the first graders in at recess, to make them listen to records of an actor reading the master’s works.” In “Mr. still faintly curled from having been rolled through the heavy typewriter.” He notices that Lytle’s equally aged sister has hands whose knuckles are “cubed with arthritis.” Lytle himself sags so exaggeratedly into the sofa, “it was as if thieves had crept through and stolen his bones and left him there.”Sullivan has a very good eye—he memorably describes the Virgin Group tycoon, Sir Richard Branson, as “that weird and whispery mogul-faun, Sir Richard”—and ears pricked for eventuality.
Late in 1998 or early in ’99—during the winter that straddled the two—I spent a night on and off the telephone with a person named John Fahey.
The first moves with the courteous lento of one of Peter Taylor’s stories; the last has the directness of something by Raymond Carver; the second, more placeless and more contemporary, could be by lots of writers—Jennifer Egan, or maybe Sam Lipsyte.
But not only does Sullivan avoid condescension; he admires his new friends, listens to them, and quietly compacts an enormous amount of acquired information into his prose.
A wide gulf separates the upper-class Sullivan, born in Kentucky into a family with deep historical roots there, who followed his grandfather to the privileged University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee, from Ritter and his crew, but the gulf vanishes when Sullivan writes: In their lives, they had known terrific violence. When Darius was growing up, his father was in and out of jail; at least once, his father had done hard time.
As hated as John was, there was no denying that he was a hard worker, competent general and able king.
It was not John’s failure as a strategist that made his reign crumble, but rather his underlying character flaws, such as his unyielding cruelty, pettiness and lack of sympathy for his people.
In a touching piece about the near-death of his brother (who electrocuted himself with a microphone while playing with his band, the Moviegoers, in a garage in Lexington, Kentucky), Sullivan mentions, in passing, “Captain Clarence Jones, the fireman and paramedic who brought Worth back to life, strangely with two hundred joules of pure electric shock (and who later responded to my grandmother’s effusive thanks by giving all the credit to the Lord).” Any reporter can be specific about the two hundred joules.
But the detail about Captain Jones giving all the credit to the Lord, while a small thing, suggests a writer interested in human stories, watching, remembering, and sticking around long enough to be generally hospitable to otherness.