Here Comes the Son
Neal Pollack tries to be the ultimate indie dad.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
In his new memoir Neal Pollack tackles a question of great consequence for his generation: Can I be a father and still retain my indie cred?
At once witty, charming and tedious, Alternadad takes a familiar theme (the trials and tribulations of modern parenting) and infuses it with humorous reflections on everything from local politics and the sad state of American health care to poop-smearing and the cramming of foreign objects into snotty orifices.
Pollack, acclaimed author of the satirical The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature and Never Mind the Pollacks, lives in Chicago when the story begins. After falling in love and becoming disillusioned with the rapidly gentrifying city, he and his artist wife Regina seek out new territory: Philadelphia.
But after just two years they decide to escape “the grit, the sadness, the corruption” and head for Austin—to a neighborhood that turns out to have plenty of grit, sadness and corruption of its own. The party doesn’t really get started until 2002, when Regina gives birth to their son Elijah and the family begins in earnest.
Hoping to stall the aging process, Pollack starts a band called the Neal Pollack Invasion, but then realizes his impressionable baby son offers a riper opportunity to live out his rock ’n’ roll fantasies. Before Elijah can speak in complete sentences, Pollack instructs him on how to mosh and “rock out” to Les Sans Culottes, Johnny Cash, and the Ramones. “I pledged to myself that my son would not have a generic American childhood,” writes Pollack “My kid was going to be cool.”
Alternadad is strongest when Pollack balances sincerity and irony, talking about parenthood with honesty and passion while still mocking his own penchant for behaving like an ass-hat. In addition to the comical “Peeniegate” episode, in which Neal’s Jewish parents go temporarily insane after he questions the ritual of circumcision, other memorable sections include Pollack discussing children’s literature, becoming obsessed with a 30-plus-pound Christmas ham, buying a magic marijuana vaporizer called the Silver Surfer and teaching Elijah to tell people their last name is Poolick.
Unfortunately Pollack is so enamored of his child he seems at times unable to resist recording even the most mundane details from the child’s early life. Although it’s fun to read Elijah’s dialogue once he’s capable of pronouncing actual words (“I’m talking to an invisible pickle, Daddy!”), reading transcriptions of his babbling baby-talk isn’t as fascinating as Pollack believes. In places the book resembles a dreary late-’90s episode of “Kids Say the Darndest Things” remarketed for the SXSW crowd—but without Bill Cosby’s festive neckties to distract one from the boredom of watching adults smirk at children’s wacky speech patterns.
Even more wearisome is the preachy tone that Pollack occasionally reverts to while describing his financial situation, which becomes more dire as Elijah gets older and the family’s only sources of income are Pollack’s writing and Regina’s part-time community college teaching. Though he pokes fun at himself for cursing NPR’s “faux-populist bullshit” while driving a Volkswagen Passat, Pollack occasionally succumbs to self-righteous populist rhetoric that appears—sadly—to be genuine.
Even though it’s admirable for Neal and Regina to show Elijah that adults can do creative work on their own terms, it seems somewhat disingenuous for Pollack to portray the family as “ordinary people just trying to get through the next bill-paying cycle.” Pollack could do a better job of acknowledging that a lot of “ordinary” people struggle to pay their bills while squandering their days at jobs they despise, not because they have the privilege of working for less money in order to realize their artistic potential. Pollack seems to want it both ways—to pat himself on the back for shunning the boredom of a straight gig, but also paint his family as a casualty of the realities of American economics.
Despite these annoying moments, I find myself hoping Pollack will write Alternadad II sometime in the next 10 years, when Elijah is old enough to unearth Dad’s Silver Surfer from the garage—and hopefully show the old man a thing or two about cool.