It’s hard to promote a memoir about parenting in 2007 without someone bringing up Alternadad. That’s not the fault of Neal Pollack, who has written this excellent account of his own child-driven odyssey to grown-uphood. Today I finally finished reading Alternadad, not because it’s long (though that is my main criticism of it: It could use some trims), but because like all multi-tasking parents, I kept getting distracted.
I’ve been a fan of Neal’s writing ever since I was asked to introduce him and Augusten Burroughs to an audience at the Miami Book Fair a few years ago and therefore read Nevermind the Pollacks. Dude’s hilarious. His satire of rock criticism, particularly the Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus schools, was spot-on. I also liked him in person (Burroughs, however, was uptight and aloof). One of my biggest new-parent regrets is that I didn’t accept Neal’s invite to go out carousing in South Beach with him and Dan Savage. That would have been a night to remember …
Neal recently wrote a mostly positive review of Mamarama for The Miami Herald, which you can read elsewhere on my website. All of which is to say I’m not the most unbiased reader of Alternadad.
Which I heartily recommend. I laughed, I cried. Neal has a deft knack for deadpan dialogue and a wonderfully irreverent eye, ear, and nose for the grossness of small children. He’s a twisted comic genius. I kept seeing Jack Black playing him in the film version of Alternadad.
Some idiot at Time magazine called Alternadad the Howl of alt-parenting memoirs. It’s irritating that as soon as a male enters a genre, they’re anointed the leaders of the canon. Hey Time idiot (whose name I won’t grace with brain cells), women have been writing this stuff for years. Operating Instructions by Ann Lamott is the genre’s Howl; Ayun Halliday’s The Big Rumpus is our On the Road; Ariel Gore is our Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Pollack is, I don’t know, Ken Kesey (someone else tell me who I am. Or better yet, don’t).
Again, it’s not Pollack’s fault he gets to benefit from male privilege (though he could have been a little bit nicer to sister me in his review — but I digress). And I’m really glad a male’s throwing his hat into the ring — I guess we can’t call them momoirs anymore. There can be no new approach to parenting without the sperm-providers involved. When people ask me about Alternadad, I like to call it and Mamarama his and hers companion volumes.
Pollack criticized Mamarama for my tendency to wax epochal about culture. I, conversely, think sometimes he could use a little telescoping of his own life. From a cushy upbringing to the family’s righteous organic-food obsession to his stint as a neighborhood organizer, Pollack is thoroughly caught up in upper-middle-class privileges that he sometimes seems oblivous of, or tries to ironically distance himself from via beer and punk.
But that classism does make his family’s eventual plunge into near-bankruptcy poignant. Pollack also misses the mark early in the book when he chastises himself for spending so much time thinking about something as domestic and therefore banal as parenting, whereas his male literary heroes wrote about big topics like war or their penises, or whatver. Wrong, dude: That willingness to take on a Brave New World is precisely what makes Alternadad not just funny, but important.
Alternadad is mostly about the guffaws. But it also provides profundity. Pollack beautifully summarizes the new consciousness that drives us alt-parents to navel-gaze, on page 282: “I felt a new emotion, at least for me. It wasn’t happiness, or sadness, exactly. Maybe it was a kind of all-knowingness, an understanding that life presents you with limitations and that you have to learn to deal with those limitations and be happy anyway. While I recognized the irony of having this life-changing epiphany while buying my son a plastic toy at a chain store that allowed its pharmacists to deny people birth-control medicine based on religious principles, I cried anyway. I wished I could give Elijah more, could be more for him. I just wanted the best for my family, and I felt ashamed that I couldn’t give it to them.”
The pressure to be a provider should be a great literary theme, if it isn’t already. Pollack tackles it with humility, grace, and judicious use of marijuana. We memoirists get a lot of ribbing for our egotism, Pollack especially. But in fact it’s his self-abasing humor that makes Alternadad such a joy.