Reporter's Jokebook

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.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd