Un-split Personality: With Alternadad, Neal Pollack Gets Real
By Carl Kozlowski
Even celebrities with the wildest lives usually wind up becoming parents; for Neal Pollack, that time came four years ago. But the story behind Pollack's life being turned upside down by domesticity isn't completely rooted in reality, for Neal Pollack has been living two lives for the past decade.
Confused? So was Pollack. The real Neal Pollack is a writer with a wife and a kid who released a hilarious memoir called Alternadad in January. But for years, he also had a false literary persona named "Neal Pollack" who pretended to be a Forrest Gump-style presence throughout the rock music and literary history of the 20th century.
The fake Pollack was named Rolling Stone's "Hot Writer of 2000" for authoring "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature," in which he imitated macho writers like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway while detailing his fake adventures across the globe. He also wrote a book called "Never Mind the Pollacks" in which he shared debauched moments with rock royalty, then toured the country with a punk band called the Neal Pollack Invasion, which blasted its way through book events in an attempt to break the staid atmosphere of readings. But eventually he grew weary of juggling it all, and now he's trying to maintain his cockeyed view of the world while discovering the pleasures of being a dad.
"I had an eight-city tour for Alternadad, and I'll just say it was a lot different than the past. A lot of my events were 'family shows' with kids' bands and dance troupes for kids, and my readings tended to be shorter," explains Pollack. "This is a book about family and trying to create a slightly off-kilter family culture so I wanted to provide a concrete example of it."Indeed, his main L.A. bookstore appearance, at the indie store Skylight Books in the hipster enclave of Los Feliz, was punctuated by a special appearance by his son, Eli, and a gaggle of his preschool-aged friends, crawling and running through the room while at times pretending to be cats.
All the potential distraction, however, only added to the hilarity of his tales – which include an outrageous business trip to Amsterdam, the debate he had with his wife over circumcising their son, and the time a baby Elijah redecorated his bedroom with his own turds.
Just as that night revealed the dad behind the writer persona, writing Alternadad forced Pollack to reveal his true self, rather than the character, and to dig deeper for his humor than he had in the pop-culture realm where he became famous. And in a world where alternative-culture fans are trying to raise kids who can think for themselves and learn more from their teachers than from a television, Pollack's work is, in its own way, a primer on how to pull it off.
"Hipster parents have always been around, and now an entire generation has reproduced and there's a debate over whether to give up your pre-parent identity when you have a kid. There's an unwillingness to give in to mainstream kiddie culture, so parents are playing movies, TV and music that they like to their kids, and it's a very mild cultural rebellion," says Pollack. "For me, that's very exciting — for people to forge their own way — and it's as simple as playing music I like for him and not buying kiddie records. It's about paying attention to what your kid is interested in and being aware of other things he'd have fun doing."
Pollack grew up in Phoenix and got into writing via "cute little stories and made my own comic books" as a boy before becoming a teen correspondent for the Phoenix Gazette. He really launched his career as a reporter in Chicago, where he was a star writer for the weekly Chicago Reader throughout most of the '90s before branching into the acclaimed national publication McSweeney's in the late '90s. Meanwhile, he was also performing his pieces at spoken word venues throughout Chicago, creating and polishing the stage presence that would become key to his later success – and eventually those McSweeney's articles would form the heart of his "Anthology."
"The pieces I was writing were in the first person so it didn't occur to me to not name the character after myself since it was a parody of first person ego. In print I committed to him completely, but in public I never really did," Pollack recalls. "In public I was mostly myself which might have confused some people, and maybe confused me a little bit. I wasn't a really good actor so I wasn't prepared to play a parody of Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal in public. I'm not Sasha Baron Cohen, and I don't have the ability to transform myself."
Intriguingly, Pollack did actually release a vinyl album with the Neal Pollack Invasion, and he also released a record with Chicago rock favorites Jon Langford and Pine Valley Cosmonauts in conjunction with the "Anthology." Yet nonetheless, he eventually felt that playing in character had run its course and dropped his façade, now noting that "if I had to do it all over again I would have promoted it with characters, and me clearly as the author, not as a twist on myself."
Neal's wife Regina was with him through all the changes, as he met her during his McSweeney's phase. And when it came time to pack up the rock gear and settle down, the two got married. But while marriage didn't seem like a big switch after a long and happy cohabitation, the arrival of Elijah signaled a whole new lifestyle.
"Having a kid has rearranged my day basically. Before I had a kid, having fun was my first priority and now it's my second," says Pollack. "I'm getting up earlier in the morning, have more responsibilities and have a new best friend, but I don't know if it's changed me all that much. It brought me back to a more genuine version of myself, and I think that's been for the better."
Neal Pollack's Alternadad is available in bookstores everywhere. Read his hilarious blogs at www.nealpollack.com