By Blake Gopnik,
who is The Washington Post's chief art critic
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
By Neal Pollack
Pantheon. 288 pp. $23.95
I wish I were Neal Pollack's brother. Then I'd have some automatic interest in hearing an exhaustive narrative of how he met his wife. I'd want to know all the quaint and comic details of how the couple tried to raise their toddler son to be as cool as his sometimes-rocker dad.
I'm not. I don't.
"Alternadad" is the new memoir in which Pollack, a comic essayist and Olympian self-promoter, sets out all this domestic incident. It reads like a 288-page Christmas letter, sent to all and sundry by that "clever" member of the family who took a couple of creative writing classes in college.
The book gives us 20 blow-by-blow, date-stamped chapters about the first five years of Pollack's family life: one entire chapter about the baby's foreskin and the extended family's debate about its fate; page after page on house-hunting in Philadelphia and then Austin, on the family's financial woes, on Pollack's weed consumption; detailed accounts of little Elijah's first haircut, his tendency to put things up his nose, his biting habit, his first trip to the movies and the particular brands of juice favored by his day care.
As a bald list of incidents, it sounds as though there could be comic potential in all this. Spelled out in agonizing detail in this book, it becomes mind-numbing.
By Page 238, when Pollack goes into yet another droll anecdote about his toddler's behavior, which includes such fascinating details as young Elijah kissing his plastic dolphin, peeing on Pollack's foot, eating undefrosted frozen corn, drinking soy milk, sharing an orange with his dad and then the two saying good night to each other precisely eight times, even Pollack's closest sibling would start dreaming of a warm bath and a sharp razor.
How's this for a gripping passage, taken verbatim from that episode?
"We sat on the couch and I peeled a tangerine. He lifted his sippy cup to my lips.
" 'Daddy drink soy milk?'
" 'No. That's yours.'
"He drank. He picked up a tangerine wedge.
" 'Daddy eat?'
"I looked at the wedge. It was an organic temptress.
"We fed each other tangerine wedges until it was time for bed."
The book's not all this dull. There are moments in Pollack's writing that broke me up, Dave Barry-style, such as when he recalls the end of his first date with his future wife:
" 'I don't think it's going to work out,' she said.
"To recap: On the night I met Regina, I nagged her because she was late to a movie, vomited twice without telling her, and then made out with her for a while, and went on a long, ill-considered rant about how I didn't believe in monogamy.
" 'Why?' I said."
The book has other passages that made me laugh aloud. Three of them. In almost 300 pages.
Of course, Pollack's "comedy" is supposed to be at the service of a larger idea. "Alternadad" is supposed to let us in on what it's like to be a father and a hipster, with maybe a few tips on how both states might be managed at once.
The problem is that in his book, Pollack comes off about as cool as Laura Bush.
"Alternadad" has got the trappings of cool, laid on thick. It's full of casual-seeming references to pop culture, old and new, meant to guarantee its author's with-it status. There's a passing nod to "peals of ecstasy of the type not heard since the mid-1970s public appearances of Steven Tyler," to moving "like an extra in a George Romero movie." Witnessing a friend's pregnancy, Pollack specifies that he "felt a little bit like a member of the third gender in 'Stranger in a Strange Land,' though I hate it when people use the verb 'to grok.' " Who doesn't?
"Alternadad" also has the snideness requisite to contemporary hip, as when Pollack goes to a park in Austin -- which, by his own account, he moved to with his young family exclusively for its "groove" -- and complains about the other parents: "They listened to 'Fresh Air' and subscribed to The New Yorker. Well, so did I, but unlike me, they actually liked those things." Of course, Pollack makes noises about knowing that he's really a slacker and a dweeb and hints broadly that his hipster aspirations are ironic, to be taken with a grain of salt. Which, since punk at least, has been a classic strategy for showing off how hip you really are.
"Alternadad" isn't a convincing demonstration of cool. It's a desperate proclamation of it, identical in boastful spirit to when Pollack describes a childhood photo of himself reading a newspaper and has to add, "Yes, I was reading at four years old."
Five hundred years ago in Italy, Baldassare Castiglione, the true godfather of cool, laid out the idea of "sprezzatura" -- the notion that real coolness needs to be so completely nonchalant that there's no sign its owner even knows he's cool or ever has to work at it.
Here's Pollack on his ambitions for his son: "I silently pledged to myself that my son would not have a generic American childhood. My kid was going to be cool."