Tag Archives: Neal Pollack

Alternadad, Neal Pollack

<em class="BookTitle">Alternadad</em>, Neal Pollack

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.

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.