What happens when hipsters have kids? More importantly, what happens when formerly funny hipsters have kids? The answer to these and other, less burning, questions can be found in Neal Pollack’s Alternadad, in which the once self-proclaimed Greatest Living American Writer moves around, takes fitful stabs at adulthood, gets married, and has a kid. Along the way, many wisecracks and sociological notations of varying import and insight are dispensed, and the author, sadly, grows up to some extent.
Like many chroniclers of the American cultural scene, Pollack is at his best when venom is involved. His otherwise rambling novel Never Mind the Pollacks succeeds in the end because of the nonstop satirical barbs being launched at the music establishment and the barnacle-like clusters of groupies and cool-hunters which have grown up around it. His 2003 screed of an essay, “Just Shut Up,” remains today one of the funniest, smartest, and most insightful looks at the anti- and pro-war punditocracy in the Iraq War era. This is mostly due, in this critic’s point of view, to the piece’s unmitigated spleen (“Shut up, antiwar people. Shut up, pro-war people. Shut down your computers and shut your goddamn pieholes. No one gives a shit what you write, so stop writing about the war. Shut up, all of you”). So, given that there seems no holier sacred cow in this country than parenthood, it was with a hand-rubbing glee that Pollack’s memoir about becoming a dad was awaited.
Unfortunately, it appears that adulthood has mellowed Pollack. While this is likely great for his (if the book is any indication) long-suffering wife and little boy, it’s a great disservice to those of us who have come to rely in some way on his anger and snark. Alternadad is really a memoir of sorts, starting in earnest with Pollack’s young adulthood in Chicago, where he hung out with odd people and wrote about them for the weekly Chicago Reader, all the while bemoaning what he saw as the city’s inexorable condoification and yuppification. A memorably boozed-fueled moment of inspiration leads to Pollack marrying his girlfriend Regina and starting to get his life on track. A brief sojourn in Philadelphia turns out about as well as could have been expected, and after they become pregnant, in 2002 Pollack convinces Regina to move to Austin, Texas based on the following criteria: “It’s relaxing and sunny and the people are really cool.”
It must be said that Pollack is probably quite a cool dad, and his amiable desire to mock his own arrested development attitude toward child development. He’s charmingly willing to mock his and Regina’s best-laid but oft-unsuccessful plans about raising young Elijah in a liberal, toxin-free environment where he will be exposed to the Ramones and other rockin’ bands instead of the usual commodified pap. However, while Pollack’s sense of humor has survived parenthood (mostly) intact, and he remains a keen-eyed student of Americana, there is a certain thinness to Alternadad that keeps it from ever becoming quite that engrossing. It’s not necessarily the author’s fault, he is, after all, a dad now, and the world generally been fantastically uninterested in what dads have to say on most subjects.