Pantheon, 2007, 290 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-375-42362-8
I’m now well in the stage of my life where friends are not just married, but actively reproducing. The changes are profound, as the new kids become the focus of their parents’ lives: suddenly, evening movie outing are impossible, and lunchtime discussions become all about showing the latest pictures of their superstar. Some people become hollow husk of their former personalities, having sacrificed every shred of it on the altar of parenthood. Lest you think I am making fun of them, let me set you straight: I’m not mocking them as much as I’m dreading that in a few years, the same thing could happen to me.
Books like Neal Pollack’s Alternadad may not be the answer to this growing fear, but they certainly put the discussion in context. People who have read Pollack’s previous books will be surprised to learn that his latest is a memoir of his first years as a father. After all, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature was literary hipness given form (from McSweeney, no less), even as Never Mind the Pollacks was a rock-and-roll novel through and through. The leap from this hipster coolness to the more conventional demands of parenthood end up forming the main concern of Alternadad, as Pollack tries to reconcile his hip formerly-single self with the demands of a growing son.
The narrative begins in Chicago, where alternative-culture-loving Pollack meets the love of his life (although not without behaving badly enough during their first date that he’s got to beg for another one), gets married and learns of her pregnancy. Then it’s off to Philadelphia where Elijah Pollack is born, and where Pollack père gets increasingly concerned about the riskier neighborhoods that he used to find so charming when he was a carefree single.
So it is that the bulk of the book takes place in Austin, where the Pollack family undergoes its formative years: Elijah starts going to preschool (and becomes a biter) while Neal briefly plays in a punk band, trades a drug habit for another one and gradually gets involved in community work. As Elijah grows up, music starts being a factor in the father-son relationship, as Neal is determined to give his son a solid background in what he considers cool music.
As a narrative, it’s an engrossing read: Neal is a flawed character, but a solid narrator, and his easy prose is peppered with killer lines and flashes of insight. Part of the appeal of the book, perhaps unfortunately, is that Neal does act in ways that most would consider irresponsible: his drug habits may be recreational, but they’re constant through the book, and his decision to form a punk band and go on a multi-city tour soon after his son’s birth may not be exactly what we’d consider solid middle-ground behavior for a new father. Later on, Elijah gets expelled from preschool for behavioral problem, and Neal writes an on-line article about it that becomes a controversy magnet and an excuse for perfect strangers to criticize his behavior. Remove those elements, however, and Alternadad becomes a fatherhood narrative like many others.
While I may not share any unsavory habits with Pollack, his narrative does address universal concerns. The transition from bachelor to husband to father is fraught with identity crises, and if Alternadad may be an extreme data point on the “personality change” scale of parenthood, it shows that some people don’t necessarily disappear once their genes have been passed on. Whether this approach is preferable to people who straighten up, become devoted brain-dead parents and carry around a photo album of chocolate-smeared infants is something that everyone will have to decide for themselves, but it’s a comfort of sort to understand that some things don’t change no matter what happens.