Meet the greatest living American original


Neal Pollack is ready to take on the uppity literary establishment with his bare hands -- and some barefaced parody.

April 07, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,Sun Staff

Three-time National Book Award winner Neal Pollack is wailing on the stage of a Hampden bar, a cowpunk band thrashing behind him. His shirt is on the floor. His bleached-blond hair is slick from the beer he dumped on himself earlier.

And he is serving notice to the reigning literary establishment that he plans to use their weighty tomes for toilet paper. That means you, Norman Mailer.

"Sontag, Roth, Mailer and Havel -- I wipe my [expletive] upon your novel!" Pollack screams into a microphone. "My friends, I hate to burst your bubble. Where is that Updike? Here comes a double!"

The people who are lucky enough to be here -- in the narrow back room of Frazier's on the Avenue -- do not know they are witnessing the rare performance of an American original.

But they are. And it is good.

After all, that strange, hairy man on stage is Neal Pollack, the greatest living American writer. His new book, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, recounts his adventures across six decades, seven continents and 10 wives.

He graduated from Harvard at 17, sailed to the South Pacific and killed people in the service of Empire, slept with at least 500 women, created modern radio and changed literature forever. In 1985, the Swedish Academy declared his work "beyond our meager standards." According to the CD jacket of the audio version of the Anthology, Allen Ginsberg said of him:

"To call Neal Pollack a spoken-word artist would be to diminish speaking, and also words. He is the steel-fisted songbird of the American soul."

The real Neal Pollack -- creator of the fictional Neal Pollack who did all those things -- has had some adventures of his own on his World Tour 2002. In Toronto, he performed in a bookstore wearing only a towel. In Philadelphia, he read to adoring fans in a subway station men's room -- until Amtrak police almost arrested him. And in Baltimore this past week, he sang a little Hank Williams with a band called the Billroys at Frazier's and performed his own work -- prose from the Anthology and poetry from his forthcoming collection, Poetry and Other Poems.

The Anthology is the first release from McSweeney's Books, the upstart publishing house founded by literary wunderkind Dave Eggers, and it parodies the pompous purveyors of literary journalism who fill the pages of Vanity Fair and other glossies with their egocentric pap.

"I've been going to bed lately on a pile of jagged stones covered only by a thin cotton blanket half-eaten by moths," Pollack begins the first piece of the book, "The Albania of My Existence." He continues: "People here are beset by unwanted refugees, obscure diseases, and limited opportunities to express themselves through fashion. I must tell you: Things are not good."

While this fictional Neal Pollack has collected many awards and wives over a long career atop American letters, the real Pollack -- a 32-year-old humorist and former reporter for the alternative Chicago Reader -- is earning some notice of his own.

He won the 2001 Best Fiction Book of the Year award from independent booksellers. He was named one of the young "writers to watch" by Book magazine. And he has conned Chicago's Bloodshot Records into releasing a spoken-word version of his book.

The tawdry details

But before all that, he was a simple hack in Chicago with a valuable magazine collection and a good heart. Four years ago, this writer took advantage of that kindness, borrowed some magazines from him -- and never returned them.

These are the tawdry details: When in college in Chicago, I wrote a paper on Might magazine, a smart and very funny bimonthly that Dave Eggers founded in 1993. Pollack was a contributor to the magazine, and he lent me four early copies for my research.

I held onto these magazines because they were so good and I was so lazy. But, mindful of my own career, I did not want to incur the wrath of a rising literary star like Neal Pollack, either.

So last week, I visited him at his new home in Philadelphia. He asked me to describe it as "a ramshackle, two-story rowhouse in a not-yet fashionable Philadelphia neighborhood," so I will. It is also near the Schuylkill River and the art museum, which is not bad at all.

When I pulled the magazines out of my backpack and handed them to him, he seemed puzzled. "These are mine?" he asked, and I quickly realized -- I could have kept them forever.

As we walked to lunch with his 8-month-old Boston terrier, Hercules, the dog took care of some business on the sidewalk. Pollack had forgotten to bring a plastic bag, but he couldn't let it lie. "Unlike every other person in Philadelphia, I don't like to litter," Pollack said. He picked up the debris with a sheet of paper from my notebook.

We soon arrived at the London Restaurant, where Pollack ordered a tuna club sandwich and ate it with his bare hands. He had not washed them.

Skewering condescension

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