Friday, November 21, 2008

Yo, Hipster,
Yes You On the Lawn
In Your Dark Socks
and Boxers

Alternadad, by Neal Pollack, Pantheon Books, 2007

A year or two into being married, my wife came up with the novel belief that I really liked ducks. Where this notion came from, what inspired this odd fancy, it is impossible to say. Reality was certainly not consulted. While I don’t have any special appreciation or loathing for ducks, beyond occasionally feeding them some stale bread I had given them little attention up to that point. Sure, Daffy Duck was my favorite cartoon character, though this was more from his personality than his species.

What followed were little duck toys, duck-related or duck-themed cards and gift wrapping, and so on. Ducks ducks ducks.

After the birth of our daughter, this sort of kicked into a fake belief that “my husband and daughter both love ducks” (though the latter did eventually develop such a love). The number of duck stuffed animals – including an enormous one big enough that at five years old my daughter can still ride it like a horse – multiplied. As did picture books about ducks. One father’s day, I received a black t-shirt with three little yellow ducks in a row, all pimped out with various urban bling, and the motto “Respect My Peeps” below it. The Littlest Critic picked that one out, no doubt encouraged or even egged on by her mother. Since I almost never wear printed shirts out of the house, that went straight to the pajama pile; it would have even if I didn’t mind being a walking billboard.

Come another father’s day and what should I find, but the volume under review, chosen no doubt not because the two women in my life know I rather liked Neal Pollack’s previous The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature or his stint at blogging (link not for the faint-hearted or easily offended and, frankly, explaining the actual subtleties of the satire in that post would require massive amounts of playing catch-up in the internet lore of long ago; you weren’t there, you don’t get it, move along).

Anyway…where was I? Oh yes, so, as you may note the image up above, a duck upon the cover was a sure sign that this was going in the basket. Luckily, again, as I said, Pollack has been hilarious in the past.

But…ah, yes, you saw that “but” coming didn’t you. A tale told by Pollack about he and his wife, the painter Regina, raising their son, Elijah. Such a tome would appeal to a stay-at-home dad, certainly, and so I looked forward to this volume with eager anticipation.

And it is funny. Yes. It’s funny. In places. There are passages where I laughed out loud and passages where I chuckled a bit and passages where I smiled in recognition. The chapter on circumcision is probably the funniest thing in the book, filled as it is with outrage, with Jewish guilt, with the clash of generations. Pollack even manages to make us feel things with emotions that aren’t on the outrage end of the spectrum. It’s the book’s finest moment.

Because Pollack does funny very well. Almost abnormally well. What isn’t apparent from this memoir is that he’s as good at delivering earnestness and heartfelt sentiment. It comes across, yes, that he loves his wife and son, but it just doesn’t make you feel the same way. I didn’t love Elijah, and a parenting memoir has to make you feel about the children in question the way the author-parent does. If there’s a bully on the playground who’s picking on your child, you too must feel anger toward that bully. If there is a beloved friend who is moving away, you too as reader, must tear up watching the moving van as it drifts off down the street. And most importantly, all the joys and challenges of raising a child, the author must give those to you as if they were your very own delights and burdens.

Pollack gives us the burdens without any difficulty. When Elijah becomes a biter and is expelled from pre-school after months of disruptive behavior, it’s not hard to feel the same kinds of frustrations as the author. When a withering comment from a nasty ├╝ber-mom at a playground irks Pollack, you too want to tell the lady, “Shove it, bitch.” There’s a been there, done that quality to those moments that you can relate to, even if you’re not a parent, and Pollack channels those emotions right onto the page with grace and humor.

But I didn’t love Elijah. Not even a little. I can’t put my finger on where this book doesn’t work for me exactly but there are things that bothered me enough while reading it that I commented on it to The Wife. For starters, we’ll just return to the idea that Pollack is a satirist and a grounding in satire isn’t usually the best launchpad for your touchy feely moments.

Also, as you can tell from various other projects of Pollack’s (the above mentioned anthology, his band the Neal Pollack Invasion, a novel entitled Never Mind the Pollacks, his former website, a column for called “Bad Sex with Neal Pollack, etc. etc.), there is one over-riding interest in the author’s life and that, my friends, is Neal Pollack. This is all fine and good for certain purposes and the essays in The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature where he constantly and lavishly overpraises himself are hilarious for their obvious overreach. To see that same sort of generalized selfishness and self-centeredness in a parenting memoir is a little more than irritating. It takes center stage and as a result, the character of Elijah flattens out immensely and we read more about Elijah as a thing to which Pollack reacts, rather than a human being with whom he relates.

Pollack spends an inordinate amount of time worrying that his son won’t be cool enough, that he himself is not cool enough, that his coolness is shrinking or growing or whatever. The sheer volume of the obsession with coolness is in and of itself decidedly uncool and grows quickly annoying. The only types of people who worry this much about coolness are junior high school students and as a portrait of growth, Pollack barely finishes the book any more mature than he was when it started. The juvenile descriptions of his drug experiences likewise don’t come off Hunter S. Thompsonish but more that one kid you went to school with who was always bragging about how baked he got before homeroom. Maybe in his private life that isn’t so, but what’s on the page is a carping, harping collection of instances where Pollack is determined to shine as a cool dad who makes his son as rock ‘n’ roll savvy as he can.

Now perhaps this is the kind of reflection that would dog any parenting memoir. Parenting styles differ so very much from person to person that you’ll probably never come across a book on the subject in which you don’t take issue with any number of ways people are raising their children. A memoir of this kind unfortunately opens the reader up to being that nosey busybody at the grocery store who chimes in with her two cents about what you’re doing wrong as a parent.

Once, in the library, while standing between two rows of DVDs, I was holding TLC by the wrists and gently swinging her to keep her from pulling all the DVDs off the shelf as a two year old is wont to do. A grandmotherly type came up to me and told me I shouldn’t do that as I’d “pull her arms right out of the socket.” I thanked her, let go of TLC’s wrists, bent over, picked her up by her ankles, and set about swinging her as I had been doing seconds before. The old lady shook her head in disgust and walked away muttering to herself. Reading Pollack’s book made me feel like I was that old lady.

For example, sometime after the birth of his son, Pollack gets it into his head to start a punk-rock band despite his sheer lack of musical ability, probably because of that fact. He goes out on a multi-week tour, leaving his wife at home alone with the baby, not because he’s always been a rocker, but because he gets the idea to do this. As a lifestyle choice, I’d say, why not. As a parenting choice, I can’t help but think it’s incredibly selfish and a bit pointless. When I found myself audibly tsking, I felt embarrassed of myself as a reviewer for letting my own parenting style get in the way of my judgment of the book itself. Pollack never goes out of his way to make his decision at all comprehensible to his readers. He just states that it’s something he “needs to do,” whining this kind of thing to his amazingly lenient and forgiving wife.

Later, when the Pollacks make the decision to put Elijah into daycare at 18 months, again I found myself shaking my head with granny-ish scorn. With both he and Regina working from home, he on his writing, she on her painting, you’d think they’d equitably split the child care duties and everyone would be happy. You’d think they could schedule themselves to take advantage of naptime and early bedtime and divvy up watching their son while the other works.

Not so. To be fair, Pollack’s work brings in the majority of the family’s cash so it’s a necessity that he have time to write, but so much of his time seems to focus on shirking and goofing off, cruising the neighborhood stoned to the gills, forming rock bands, etc. that the decision to shunt Elijah off to daycare just comes off as another selfish choice. Somehow, with two adults under one roof with a child, neither Neal nor his wife can quite summon up the reserves to alternate time spent with their son, even accounting for what sounds like a prodigious amount of television watching based on the list of shows Pollack documents.

By the time I’d gotten around to the biting stage of the story, I didn’t really have much interest in finishing the book. I just wanted to be done so I could say I finished the book. Pollack’s childless self-involvement was amusing because it had an unbridled “that’s what I’d have said in that situation if I’d had the guts” quality to it. Inchoate reaction to the world can be funny, but I was hoping that a grown up Pollack would have, well, grown up.

The man has more responsibilities and he does love his son more than his own coolness (a scene at a Spongebob movie demonstrates that handily), but his legend in his own mind status rides uneasily alongside his parenting. The asshole I loved to read at the century’s beginning is now just someone’s asshole dad who wants to be cool, and that’s not nearly as fun. If enlightenment had come along for the ride, this book might have been a far greater pleasure to read. Self-awareness brings with it the knowledge that you aren't really cool; that no one really is after all. Elijah will probably be doing a greater share of eyerolling at his father’s antics once high school hits, and Captain Oblivion will be just another dad then.


Alley Cat said...

It would probably take some doing to write a book about parenthood and leave the reader with no real emotions about the child, or even a sense of happy recognition when the author praises the child out of all proportion to what the child has actually accomplished. In Neal's description of Elijah, did the kid seem dull and unimaginative to you? Or maybe kind of bratty?

The Critic said...

In Pollack's story, Elijah appears on stage to to exactly three things:

1. allow Pollack to do something "heartwarming" for us to awwww over.

2. approve wholeheartedly of Pollack's tastes and be into punk rock music

3. do something naughty that either frustrates Pollack or charms his heart

That is to say, he appears in order to give us another chance to see Pollack on stage.

Erin said...

book, shmook. I've always wondered about the duck thing. So, I should return your duck themed xmas present?

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