Running Joke

“There is a danger that people will think that everything I write is a joke,” Neal Pollack told an interviewer for a local arts Web site in December 2000. “My intention is not to be the funny guy for the rest of my life. Humor is to have a very short shelf life. I don’t want the joke to get old.”

In September of that year, Pollack (a former Reader staff writer) had published his first book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, via McSweeney’s, the literary magazine and press run by media darling Dave Eggers. The premise of the anthology was a joke, and a decent one: Pollack took aim at the self-indulgent first-person literary style that has become a staple of glossy magazines like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. He proclaimed himself the greatest name in American letters–a graduate of Exeter and Harvard, a magazine journalist, novelist, and poet, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a Booker Prize, and a National Book Award–and parodied deserving targets like squeamish lefty race journalism (“I Am Friends With a Working-Class Black Woman”) and navel gazing disguised as field reporting (“The Albania of My Existence”).

“I don’t think there’s as much interest now in politics and grand themes,” Pollack complained in the interview. “Norman Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead, a novel about his experiences in World War II. Gore Vidal pretty early on was writing novels about Roman history. Hunter Thompson wrote a book about the Hell’s Angels. I don’t see writers of this generation doing that. And when they’re told they’re good–it all seems very top-down, like the honor is bestowed upon them by, like, Talk magazine and Vanity Fair, and the New Yorker, they publish these glossy photos of them, and it’s just, it’s about something different….I’ve written for the Reader for seven years, and for a time I was churning out ten- to fifteen-thousand-word melodramas about tenants’ rights struggles, and the battle to try to stop the CTA from cutting its bus lines, with a multicharacter narrative. I don’t know, it’s just that’s what appeals to me as a writer–as a real writer, as opposed to the writer of this book.”

Over the course of the anthology’s 153 pages, the joke eventually wears thin–by the end, it’s about as subtle as a late-90s Saturday Night Live skit. Yet here we are, nearly a quarter of the way through 2002, and somehow Pollack has parlayed it into the very sort of celebrity-writer career he meant to poke fun at. He’s been lauded by Rolling Stone as “hot” and Vanity Fair as “inventive and hilarious.” The book, which has sold between 12,000 and 13,000 copies in hardcover, was published in paperback on March 5 by HarperPerennial with ten new pieces. Last week the Chicago alt-country label Bloodshot released a CD containing nine readings from the anthology and its unpublished follow-up, “Poetry & Other Poems,” with musical backing by Chicago’s Pine Valley Cosmonauts; it’s also included in a three-CD set issued by Harper’s books-on-tape division. Pollack is now working on a satirical novel to be published by HarperCollins, “sort of a fake rock biography of a mythical rock critic,” he says. “It’s like a history of rock told from the point of view of two very different rock critics.”

The Bloodshot CD packaging is a send-up of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, with Pollack imitating Smith’s terse song synopses. (The description of Pollack’s “Introduction” reads: “Greatest living American writer acknowledges feebleness of competition, declares sexual prowess.”) While he reads, Jon Langford, Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, and John Rice chug through a variety of archetypal tunelets whose connection to the subject matter is superficial at best. “It Is Easy to Take a Lover in Cuba” gets an attempted son groove, “I Am Friends With a Working-Class Black Woman” gets a perfunctory blues, and “Letter From Paris” apes Django Reinhardt. Only on “A Spoken-Word Poem for America” does the music actually abet the humor: as Pollack emulates the drawn-out elocution that passes for drama at poetry slams, the players noodle on congas and trumpet in the background.

As you might expect, Pollack recognizes the irony in his success–but he’s not about to let it spoil a good time. “When I did that interview I didn’t know how far the book was going to take me,” he says. “There was the possibility that it was just going to be a whimsical sideline to my life, but…then I sold the paperback rights, then I sold the audio rights, and then I sold the next book, and going from there, why should I go back to writing ten-thousand-word stories about labor disputes? I like doing that, but this is a lot more fun.”

Pollack moved to Philadelphia around the time of the book’s publication because, as he wrote in his occasional column for New York Press, which often uses the same shtick, Chicago had “mutated into a hideous, bland urban amusement park for Nebraskans, with a good music scene.” He’ll be back in town this week. On Sunday, March 10, he’ll perform with the Pine Valley Cosmonauts at the Hideout; on Tuesday, March 12, he’ll read solo at Barbara’s Bookstore.

Brother Act

Between them, brothers Ben and Adam Vida have worked with dozens of Chicago’s better-known musicians. Ben, a guitarist, cofounded the acoustic minimalist quartet Town and Country and plays in two regular projects with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm; Adam, whose main ax is the trapkit, is versatile enough to have backed Edith Frost and filled Pat Sampson’s big shoes as the drummer for U.S. Maple. But nothing either brother has done so far could’ve predicted the nature of their first real project together, Central Falls, whose debut album, Latitude, has just been released by Truckstop.

The brothers grew up in Minneapolis, and played rock together at home. Ben, 27, moved here in the summer of 1996, after graduating from the music program at Webster University in Saint Louis; Town and Country formed later that year. Adam, 25, spent a couple years studying jazz performance at the New England Conservatory of Music, but dropped out and moved here in October 1997, lured by Ben’s praise for the music scene. He became a regular on the improv circuit, playing in a loose trio with Ken Vandermark and Town and Country bassist Liz Payne, and joined U.S. Maple last fall.

While Adam was still in school, he’d picked up the guitar and begun writing pop songs, and in Chicago in the spring of 1998, he began performing some of them with Payne and Ben in a trio called Transatlantic. The group fell apart after Payne injured her hand in a circular saw accident, in the fall of 1999, but Adam wanted to record the songs anyway, and the brothers recruited bassist Ryan Hembrey, drummer Jason Adasiewicz, and pedal-steel guitarist Steve Dorocke to help out. As they began rehearsing, the others convinced Adam that they should be a real band, and Central Falls was born.

A week before they were set to record, early last year, a nasty case of tendinitis forced Hembrey to bow out, and the band laid down basic tracks at Engine Music Studios without him. Noel Kupersmith of Brokeback and the Chicago Underground overdubbed bass lines a few weeks later. The music is quiet and languorously melodic; at times it sounds like Acetone with a twang. The Vidas’ guitars intertwine in a soothing mesh of arpeggios and strummed chords, through which Dorocke sends cool waves of pedal steel, and the brothers sing together, harmonizing with an appealing raggedness. Since the album was recorded Dorocke has left the band and Hembrey has switched to keyboards; Andy Uhrich plays bass.

Central Falls celebrates the album’s release with a show at Schubas on Friday, March 8.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/George Landau.