Neal Pollack -- iconic journeyman!
The globe-gallivanting literary godsend has not only redefined journalism, but rephrased and restructured it as well. Readers adore his swaggering, two-fisted prose. Nymphets lust for his swaggering, two-fisted body.
And if you've never even heard of him . . . well, so much the better.
"There's a little bit of confusion as to who I actually am, but that just adds to the fun," Pollack says. "I get to re-create my identity on a daily basis."
Confusing media-saturated frontal lobes may be Pollack's goal, but it is not the point of this article. So let's go back and try that introduction again.
Neal Pollack is actually a staff writer at "The Chicago Reader" alternative newsweekly who grew up in Paradise Valley. His satirical new book is called "The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature." The book chronicles the journalistic adventures of Pollack's alter ego, also named Neal Pollack. The fictional Pollack is a sort of Norman Mailer/Hunter S. Thompson/Ernest Hemingway crossbreed whose staggering self-absorption hilariously eclipses his assigned subjects in stories such as "I Am Friends With a Working Class Black Woman."
The book, as one reviewer put it, "gleefully urinates on the basic conceit of American magazine journalism."
It also represents publishing-industry rebellion on about a half-dozen or so levels.
The Anthology is the first book to be published by McSweeney's, a quarterly print journal and Web site by Dave Eggers, author of this summer's acclaimed best seller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. With its built-in ribbon marker ("The longest ribbon marker in the history of the English language"), sober cover graphic and fake critic blurbs, Pollack's book could almost be mistaken as a straight-faced chronicle of an actual celebrity journalist. Compare such mindfuck packaging to the all-too-obvious humor books released by mainstream publishers, books that, as Eggers noted in one interview, all tend to look "like Garfield calendars."
All profits from the Anthology go straight to Pollack, who is primarily responsible for his own book tour and promotion. There are no agents and -- at this point -- no middlemen. The idea, explains Eggers, is to carve a more direct route from the author to the reader (See accompanying story, "A Side of Eggers"). The book is sold through McSweeney's, Amazon.com and at select indie bookstores.
"We're just doing smaller books in a more personal way, eliminating the fat and thus bringing more benefits back to the author," says Eggers.
Pollack is also eschewing stops at chain bookstores on his promotional tour, and instead offers readings at more inventive locales such as a Philadelphia train station rest room, the Venice Beach boardwalk, Coney Island and his Las Vegas hotel room.
It's almost as if Eggers and Pollack are doing everything in a non-traditional (some would say foolhardy) way in hopes that the grand sum of their ideological rebellion will equal an underdog hit.
But how many conventions can a virgin publishing house and first-time author ignore, yet still prove there is a viable alternative to Big Publishing?
At a recent New Times staff meeting, several Esteemed Reporters glared at Pollack's thin hardcover book like it was a journalistic turd.
"So this book is nothing but bullshit?" yelled one, a bit incredulous. "Why would we write about bullshit!?"
Although the reaction was more about the merit of devoting resources to covering Pollack's book than a critique of the content, it was, still, hardly the professional embrace Pollack had hoped his efforts would inspire. As guardians of the fourth estate, journalists tend to take themselves quite seriously. And the Anthology manages to grenade most every feature-story convention and mock every not-so-secret point of journalistic pride.
In the book, Pollack brags incessantly about his writing awards, celebrity status, sexual conquests and on-tap masculinity.
It's a gag that becomes a bit exhausted by the final chapter, but by then Pollack has managed to shatter an impressive number of reporting templates. There are parodies of the health-care story, the travel piece, the teen-lifestyle exposé and, most consistently, a well-deserved shredding of "participatory journalism" -- use of chest-thumping first person that elbows interview subjects aside to make room for a writer's ego.
In "It Is Easy to Take a Lover in Cuba," for instance, Pollack riffs on ethnocentric travel stories where the average American is worshiped in less prosperous countries.
I have been in Cuba for eight days now and have had sex with 65 different women. Some of them I have paid up to ten dollars, but most have asked for less. One woman rode me silly for several hours in exchange for a pair of sneakers. Another fellated me for a bag of pretzels. Still another became my slave for a day after I gave her a copy of The New Yorker's summer fiction issue.
In "Stand By John," Pollack takes on journalistic infatuation with John McCain and starry-eyed political profiling. During an imaginary boyhood summer in Phoenix, McCain and Pollack hang out, play Asteroids on Atari and make "POW puppets."
That same day, we went to see E.T. at the mall. Afterward, over a slice, John threw his change at the guy in the pizza place. "I don't need your stinking soft money!" he said.
He had quite the temper, but God, he was a hero.
So far, some of the more egregious national magazine offenders seem to appreciate Pollack's critical spanking. Men's Journal just published an excerpt, and the Anthology has received rave blurbs from Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. There has also been some delightful media confusion. Last week, a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a column claiming Pollack was actually Eggers writing under a pseudonym as part of an elaborate prank. The reporter quickly recanted after receiving an irate letter from Pollack's mother testifying that her son does, in fact, exist.
Pollack says the character came out of disillusion and frustration with journalism, but he was not always so cynical about the profession.
As a student at Saguaro High School in the mid-'80s, Pollack was a self-described "pure journalism dork." He was a teen correspondent for the now-defunct daily Phoenix Gazette and editor of his school paper, writing editorials criticizing the football team and the Jostens class ring company. He once wrote that Pavilions Mall was "the cholera-infected blanket of our generation."
Pollack graduated from Saguaro in 1988, and enrolled in Northwestern University's journalism school. "I was certain I would be working for the New York Times by the time I was 24," he says.
Instead, after graduation Pollack was working at The Quill, a periodical published by the Society for Professional Journalism. It was a prestigious gig, but hardly a good fit for Pollack's sensibility.
"We went to an SPJ convention in Baltimore," Pollack says. "And my editor introduced me to somebody and said, 'This is Neal, my assistant editor, he's too goddamned literary to be a real journalist.'
"And I was like, 'Ohh, I'm going to prove you wrong.'"
Pollack started freelancing for the Reader, and was eventually hired as a staff writer. The first story written by his evil alter ego was called "The Albania of My Existence," in which Pollack's athletic prowess and celebrity glow bring joy to a village of starving, war-torn Albanians. "People here are beset by unwanted refugees, obscure diseases, and limited opportunities to express themselves through fashion," he wrote.
Pollack read the story at an open-mike poetry night in Chicago, "just playing around and having fun." Then he heard that Dave Eggers was looking for freelance material for a new project called McSweeney's.
Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency (www.mcsweeneys.net) is a place where writers can get published, without pay, that semi-brilliant think piece that Condé Nast would never touch. A home for orphaned fragments and unattractive angles. Archived stories include "Ideas for Yet More Film Adaptations of Classic Novels, Updated and Set in a High School," "How I Voted in the Weather Channel's Top 10 Storms of the Century Poll" and, most famously, "The Chronicles of Man: The Magazine for Men," a brutal magazine parody by Eggers inspired by his brief stint as Esquire's editor at large.
Now the creation of McSweeney's Books ups the stakes a bit. It is one thing to throw satirical barbs at the publishing industry. It is another to pioneer your own publishing system.
Here's the process: McSweeney's accepts a book, edits and publishes within three months (compare that to the year-or-longer wait most authors face at a traditional publishing house). McSweeney's pays for the book's printing costs. The author keeps all the net proceeds (while a standard publishing agreement earns an author about 15 percent), but pays for his own advertising and book tours.
"We've sold about 1,000 online, and about 2,000 through stores," says Eggers. "This is before, mind you, it's appeared in the chain stores, or any reviews have come out."
Like most new Internet-based publishing models, the system attempts to rectify authors' most common complaints about Big Publishing. Paul Knight, CEO of PublishingOnline.com, lists them off: low royalties, little promotion and a general sense of disconnect between the author and publisher and the average reader.
"We're going to see a lot of [Internet-based] experiments over the next few years, and I think maybe in the next five years it will all settle down and we'll see new models that are the new standards," says Knight. "The power is definitely shifting away from large publishing houses."
(Representatives from Simon & Schuster, Random House, Warner Books and Barnes & Noble all declined to comment about McSweeney's.)
The most highly publicized model so far has been Stephen King's honor system, where readers are trusted to pay the author for each installment of a serialized story. On his site, King called the system "Big Publishing's worst nightmare." But the story was actually released by King's publisher, Simon & Schuster. Hardly a true rebellion.
"I think the two methods will work well together," Pollack says. "King can do what he does because he is a big name, the biggest name. No one is going to pay to download my stuff, or at least not enough people so I can make a living. For midlist-or-below authors, the only solution is to sell books in an unconventional way. For the top authors, King's way is better. The real challenge is finding ways to keep Big Publishing from buying into these methods."
Pollack also sells books on his tour. Most of the turnout has been the "McSweeney's type," which Pollack describes as the college-educated, late-20s/early-30s "indie rock crowd."
The local stop on his tour will be a literal homecoming.
Pollack is returning to Saguaro High School at 4 p.m. on October 23 for a homecoming ceremony complete with a band and his former teachers. When asked if he was popular at Saguaro, Pollack says, "Only if you consider being widely despised as a synonym for popularity."
Nonetheless, he is trying to persuade the principal to dedicate a drinking fountain in his honor. The dedication is modestly satirical, but it is, at least, a first step on Pollack's journey to literal, non-bogus fame.
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"I don't think that after doing this book I'll be interviewing Kate Hudson poolside," he says. "I don't see that happening."
"As much as she wants me to. I mean, I've been getting calls from her agent, and I'm like, 'Look, I'm on my book tour, all right? I'll see you in L.A., at the Viper Room, when I'm done!'"
He pauses. "You got me on a riff there. It's a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing."