Monday, June 01, 2009

Good Writing: John Jeremiah Sullivan

John Jeremiah Sullivan
From He Shall be Levi, GQ Magazine

When Rex showed up, he was preceded by someone, a person called Tank. To get to Rex, you must get past Tank. That is unlikely until such time as Tank decides to let you by—which he will do, in that event, with good humor, having assumed his gentle-giant mien. He does 300 push-ups in one set every night before going to bed, and he often goes to bed at three in the morning. He has had some kind of military training. Later, when we knew each other, when we "had history," as he put it, I asked him to let me try on his soft sky blue Sean John baseball cap. It dropped straight to my eyes, loose as a candle snuffer, and my head is so large that a waitress at a country restaurant once told me I looked like "a 40-year-old fetus." Tank's head was slowly swallowing its ears.

It takes some mental effort to recover the feeling of how much he seemed to mean at one time, and practically yesterday. Obama has made him seem kitschy already, has stolen his power to signify. Not presuming anything about one's politics—referring instead to the sheer dynamism of events since the election. We are a couple of beads farther along the necklace of cultural time from Levi. We are post-Levi. It's decadent to think of him now. But the chemical traces remain of a plausibility structure inside which his very face seemed full of information and even warning. Something was happening to the country, it was splitting in two. Levi looked like a place where the ripping might start. We were laughing at him then, too, of course—that was largely it. If McCain's choosing Palin had been cynical (as borne out by their recoiling from each other in defeat), not until his embrace of Levi did things become farcical. September 3, on the tarmac, that was when you knew we had reached some point, some level. The McCains came out to welcome the Palins onto the ticket. It was an introduction and some kind of cryptic archconservative coronation. Wind blowing, Bristol dressed in a crisp khaki dress coat. Suddenly into the group shot hove this Levi, chaw-chomping Levi, young, dumb, and full of comeliness, a self-proclaimed redneck hockey enthusiast, no-kids-wanting-but-no-protection-using Levi Johnston, tricked out like a duck hunter now, granted, not like a serious hunter, but no less ready to kick your ass if you messed with him or manifested homosexual tendencies around him. He was at once a bodying forth of the Bush octad and its whole queasy bargain with American masculinity, and at the same time a captivating time bomb of white Alaskan authenticity, with a tattoo on his ring finger. We knew he was there only because it had been deemed worse for him not to be there. That gave him a curious magnetism. And John McCain, fine, he was trying to win a campaign, he's an opportunist. He's also a United States senator and a war hero, and there was something in how he greeted Levi—how for a second it mattered whether he greeted this boy, and in what manner—like an acknowledgment. Not of one man to another, exactly, but of one force to another. It was either the beginning or the end of something. Briefly recall when you didn't know which.

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