The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, Neal Pollack

Harper Perennial, 2002, 205 pages, C$20.95 tpb, ISBN 0-06-000453-3

I suppose that there’s something to be said about blogs when it comes to self-marketing: Had I not already been under the spell of Neal Pollack’s prose and his pleas to buy his books, it’s unlikely that I would have picked up his stuff at the local remainder sale. Hurrah for shameless self-promotion!

Now, keep in mind that Neal Pollack is the very definition of shamelessly self-promoting writer. (And I don’t say this as if it’s a bad thing) His latest book, Never Mind the Pollacks, is a rock-and-roll novel telling the story of Neal Pollack, famous rock journalist and confidante to rockstars from Elvis Presley to Kurt Cobain. His first book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, is a mock collection of snippets from the decades-long career of Neal Pollack, greatest American writer. While Never Mind he Pollacks is best left to those with enough knowledge of rock to appreciate the fine in-jokes, the Anthology is something else.

For one thing, I suspect that it’s a bit more accessible to everyone. In this book, Neal Pollack’s character is that of a writer as a rock star, a fantastically self-absorbed man’s man whose universe revolves around him. It may be useful to be an avid magazine reader to piece together the pieces of his parodies (I kept flashing back to Sebastian Junger’s Fire pieces myself), but the bombastic quality of Pollack’s alter-ego is amusing enough that even people unaware of, say, Norman Mailer, will laugh along.

The biggest wonder of the Anthology, surprisingly enough, is that it sustains this simple satiric concept for a full two hundred pages. Pieced together as an anthology of “Pollack”’s forty-year-long journalism career, it’s merely an excuse to explore different themes and subjects as a knuckle-busting, hard-drinking man’s man. “Pollack” has been everywhere from the USSR to Mexico, has written back from countless wars, has seduced hundreds of women (most of whom just have to hear his name before cooing “take me!”), is best buddies with this world’s leading figures (but especially John McCain) and has stopped at least one dastardly plot against the USA. Whew! Just take a look at some of the chapter titles: “I Am Friends With a Working-Class Black Woman”, “The Burden of Internet Celebrity”, “Why Am I So Handsome?”… An interview with his sister is, of course, all about him. Hubris seems too small a word for this oversize personality.

(The “real” Neal Pollack, should you be spoilsport enough to ask, is in his thirties and is only beginning to take the literary world by storm. If he exists at all. But the real danger in reviewing Pollack is in either trying to be as funny as him, or doubt nothing.)

In some ways, this is reminiscent of Mark Leyner’s Et tu, Babe?, another delicious piece of humour writing in which the author was left free to push the limits of literary self-disillusion to insane levels. While Leyner’s book was funnier (c’mon; visceral tattoos?), Pollack’s Anthology holds better as a unit. As a parody of those other “anthologies of literature”, it’s pitch-perfect… from the ancillary material (chronology, family tree, study guide…) to the tapestry of the star protagonist’s imagined career. Faked photos included.

From what I can gather, the original hardcover version of the Anthology, as published by McSweeney’s, was a superb design parody of this type of book. (Head over to Amazon, and “look inside” the hardcover for a few extra laughs) While the Harper Perennial edition isn’t quite as respectable-looking, it does contain a third more material, and even brings up “Pollack”’s career to the Post-WTC era. It also includes Jack Shafer’s New York Times Book Review piece on the Anthology, which says everything I wanted to say about it, and better. (Bastard.)

I’m always a sucker for satire, and this one is better than most. While the book didn’t make me laugh out loud constantly, I had a hard time wiping a constant smirk off my face; The only reason not to read it in a single sitting is running out of time. (Hey Neal; you can use this as a blurb: “There aren’t enough hours in a day for Neal Pollack.”) Witty, well-executed and liable to make you look at literary celebrities in a whole new light, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature is well-worth a look. Even if Neal Pollack’s ceaseless stream of self-promotion hasn’t yet reached you.

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