Face it: kids aren’t cool. They cry for their mommies and play with their poo, fixate on blankies and throw their food. Their taste in music runs to the sweet and singsong. But Neal Pollack is determined that his kid will be different. In his new memoir, Alternadad, the satirist who once staged a reading in a men’s room details his struggle to not only raise a cool kid but stay cool himself. His greatest fear? That he and his wife, a painter, could become the stodgy, self-sacrificing, boring old grown-ups who appear to be the only model of responsible parenting they’ve ever known. In other words: their parents.
Now, everyone knows that the least cool thing of all is being obsessed with being cool, and this is the crack in the foundation of the project. Pollack, a onetime Reader staffer who now lives with his family in Los Angeles, has been perfecting over the years a wry, self-mocking voice in books like The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature in which, through his alter ego “Neal Pollack, the World’s Greatest Living Writer,” he took the stuffing out of the lions of American letters, and there’s some funny stuff here. The early, child-free pages in particular are engaging, as he courts his future bride (“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 awhile and went on a long, ill-considered rant about how I didn’t believe in monogamy”) and then makes a poorly planned move from Chicago to Philadelphia, believing that Philly will supply him with the gritty urban experience that gentrifying Chicago simply can’t.
But Philly turns out to be a little too gritty for him. After Regina gets pregnant and a neighbor gets mugged, the couple decide it might be time to expand their horizons. In short order they buy a house in Austin, Texas–a town that’s adequately “weird” but with better weather and less crime. With the birth of baby Elijah, they settle in to raise their child, trying to stay self-employed and, of course, “cool.” For Pollack this primarily means making sure that Elijah listens to the Hives, avoids junk food, and doesn’t interfere too much with his father’s consumption of copious amounts of weed.
The book loses momentum about halfway through, right around the time Elijah learns to walk and talk, devolving into a series of anecdotes of the “kids say the darnedest things” variety, rendered in a toddler’s consonant-challenged lisp. These are broken up by Pollack’s disdainful dismissals of every other grown-up around, from the NPR-listening moms at a local park, about whom he says, with no apparent self-awareness, “a complex, impenetrable aura of self-righteous privilege and integrity, mixed with a little sacrifice, surrounded them,” to an array of child-care professionals who all, apparently, suck.
Alternadad’s myopia is all the stranger considering the source. Pollack’s first three books confidently lampooned the self-aggrandizing hypocrisies and mythmaking of novelists, journalists, and rock critics. Here, without the body armor of satire to protect him, he only really rises above the level of light domestic comedy twice–in chapters dealing with the family shitstorm kicked up by the question of whether Elijah should be circumcised and, later, with Elijah’s impulse control problems, which get him expelled from preschool for biting other children. (The 2005 Salon essay from which the biting chapter is adapted brought the wrath of the Internet down upon Pollack and his wife, who were bombarded with e-mail accusing them of being bad, selfish parents–and just generally evil people–for sending Elijah to day care at 21 months and being insufficiently sorrowful about it.)
Part of the problem may be that in memoir in general and comic memoir in particular it’s tempting for a writer to turn the people in his life into caricatures for aesthetic gain. Thus Regina, who is probably a reasonably smart and together person, is rendered here as a sassy one-note goddess with a fixation on organic food whose primary role in life is to keep her frisky husband and son in line. Pollack scripts her with a knowing wink, but acknowledging that you’re trafficking in sexist stereotypes—me caveman, wife saint—doesn’t make them more compelling.
The main problem, however, is that Pollack seems to be ignorant of the vast, rich literature of contemporary “alternative” parenting. Women like Hip Mama editor Ariel Gore and the East Village Inky’s Ayun Halliday—among many, many others–have been writing about the challenges of raising children while staying true to their own idiosyncratic selves for years, but from this you’d think Pollack was the first person to ever change a diaper while wearing a Flaming Lips shirt. In the release that accompanied my review copy of the book, Pollack says: “My wife Regina and I happened to have a kid during the rise of hipster parenting culture. Alternadad is both a critique of and celebration of that culture, as well as a call for a new style of parenting.” (I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and it’s a cheat to review a book’s PR, but in the case of Alternadad, it seems important to note that Pollack knows his milieu. And, for the record, the cover image–a rubber duckie with a beak piercing–is just . . . wrong.) Based on the glowing prepublication publicity and early reviews, this mission has struck a chord–at least with the overachieving children of the upper middle class on the mastheads of America’s lifestyle magazines and Web sites.
But the thing is, there’s nothing new about the parenting model promoted here. “Alternative” parenting isn’t about buying kiddie records from Bloodshot or watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse rather than Barney. And it’s certainly not about dissing other parents whose lifestyle choices you deem bourgeois or square. Alternative parenting might be raising your child in a lesbian commune. Maybe it’s homeschooling. Or breast-feeding till age five. Or absolutely no TV or putting all the food in the kitchen at kid-level and letting him choose what to eat.
For all Pollack’s interest in raising a cool kid, what he really wants–like many parents before him–is a child who’s just like him. The subtext here is how unavailable Pollack’s own “high-upper-middle-class childhood” is to his own kid, not to mention most kids, and I wish this idea had been more fully explored. But pop signifiers of bohemian living aside, Elijah’s being raised by a heterosexual nuclear family in a single-family home in a (slowly) gentrifying neighborhood. His parents want to get him into a decent preschool. They worry about property values and crime. They watch too much TV and don’t have as much sex as they’d like. And they want to give their child unfettered access to the dream of individual exceptionalism. What could be more mainstream than that?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Aubrey Edwards.