FATHERHOOD, for humorist Neal Pollack, didn’t hasten an end to his boozy nights out at crowded rock shows or mute his inner cynic or prompt a move away from the crime-ridden urban enclaves he called home. That’s because Pollack was determined -- for reasons he still can’t quite articulate -- to be a “cool” dad, spending his son’s first few years in a unique sort of identity crisis, touring with his newly formed punk band, pot-smoking in Amsterdam and giving his toddler the pop culture chops that would make any Gen-Xer proud.
In his new comic memoir “Alternadad,” to be published next month by Pantheon Books, Pollack writes that he nearly wept when his son requested the Ramones and, after weeks of watching vintage episodes of “The Muppet Show,” the barely verbal boy recognized John Cleese. Still, even Pollack, a former writer for an alternative weekly, considers this attempt to stay cool a bit pretentious and silly, an odd generational tic. Though it has worked in his favor career-wise.
Pollack, his son, Elijah, now 4, and artist wife, Regina Allen, moved to L.A. from Austin, Texas, about a year ago. In November, Warner Brothers optioned the book. Next summer, Pollack said, he’ll be pitching a sitcom too. Meanwhile, the adventures keep coming with Elijah, a precocious child with the face of a Botticelli and the temperament of Dennis the Menace. (While impersonating a cat, for example, Elijah uses his Barrel of Monkeys container as a litter box. For real.) Pollack launched a blog to keep track of these new hilarious episodes, and not surprisingly, he already envisions a sequel.
“In some ways this could be a parody of a whiny Gen-X dad, you know?” he said of his new book. “In some ways I am a parody of a whiny Gen-X dad.... It’s weird talking about your life in terms of material. But I guess I’m here, right? Everybody’s life is material.”
On a recent morning, Pollack answered the door of his Highland Park bungalow barefoot in jeans and an untucked, pink-striped, Western-style shirt. Inside, the walls were packed with original art -- portraits and sketches. There was a little-boy-sized wooden table and chairs next to the dining room table.
Elijah was at preschool and Allen was in a small upstairs studio, painting retro-inspired images on children’s lunchboxes and stools, a new business she launched with Pollack’s sister. Teacake, the family’s elderly tabby, roamed around meowing urgently. Pollack nestled into his sofa with his phlegmatic Boston terrier Hercules on his lap and puzzled over his generation’s weird need to remain culturally current.
“We were basically brought up on television and movies and video games and music,” said Pollack, 36. “For a lot of us, our identities are very tied up in that stuff.... I wish I could identify what it is in our psychology that makes us want to talk ironically about being a parent. You know? The world is so ridiculous. The things you find yourself doing and saying are so absurd.”
Pollack embodies the white, educated, upper-middle-class sect of his generation, the children of the 1980s who had an unusually elongated adolescence. Now, they are the 30- and 40-something parents of small children for whom pop culture is a religion and cynicism an involuntary reflex.
UNTIL recently, Pollack was a “pretty sincere” reporter. When he began writing for the alternative weekly the Chicago Reader in the 1990s and cultivated a “comic, snarky, confrontational” persona in three books of satire, including “The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature,” a series of parody magazine articles published by McSweeney’s. Times were lean.
In a Salon.com essay last year, Pollack wrote that he and Allen were forced to put their house on the market to pay off their credit card debt. Now, he’s a full-fledged member of the Writer’s Guild getting decent health insurance and living in a safer neighborhood.
“It’s still not our dream neighborhood, but I’m not having to chase prostitutes off my lawn,” he said. “That makes a big difference.”
In the book, Pollack bares all, telling, for example, how his sex life suffered with the baby’s arrival and the wrenching battle with his Jewish parents over Elijah’s circumcision. (Pollack and Allen didn’t want it, but after his parents threatened to cut the child out of their lives, they capitulated.)
There is a fair share of cringe-worthy scenes in the book, but the memoir is funny for the same reasons it is sometimes off-putting. For instance, while his son is still learning to talk, Pollack tries to instill him with a sense of irony, teaching him to mispronounce his last name as “poo-lick.” Before meeting his son and wife at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, he eats a breakfast of marijuana-sprinkled cheese toast.
He doesn’t apologize for being a pot-smoker and a parent. Though, in the book, he distinguishes himself from other, neglectful, pot-smoking parents. After attending a party where children mingled with adults in pot-filled rooms, he refined his notion of a cool parent.
“I wanted to be a cool parent, but there was free and loose and open-minded, and then there was sordid,” he wrote. “We may have made mistakes in Elijah’s upbringing, but you’d never catch him crawling around a shag carpet at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night with a container of marijuana in his mouth.”
Pollack’s naked honesty backfired last May after his Salon.com essay on Elijah biting his preschool classmates, particularly one little girl who bore the scabs to prove it. In the essay, Pollack tells his son, “You can only bite girls if they ask you to.” Readers skewered Pollack and Allen as selfish, neglectful parents, completely unprepared for the responsibility of raising a child.
“So Neal, do you think it is OK that my 2-year-old child is experiencing unrelenting physical trauma and developing a psychiatric disorder just so you can feel sorry for your child and yourself?” wrote the girl’s father, Will Neff. “Did you take one moment to think about the repercussions of these events on other people’s lives?”
It was a turning point for Pollack, a moment, he said, when he realized fatherhood was “for keeps.” He said it prepared him for the reaction to his behavior in “Alternadad.”
“I’m sure I’m going to get attacked,” he said. “It seems inevitable that some people are going to see that as irresponsible or immature or stupid. All of which it was, but you know I also don’t think those things are diametrically opposed to being a good parent.”