Neal Pollack, Never Mind the Pollacks (Harper Collins, 2003)
"Joan," said Neal, "I've kept this from you all these months because I didn't want to hurt you. But I'm not who you think I am."
"Who are you?"
"I'm a rock critic."
I could say that Neal Pollack's metafictive opus, Never Mind the Pollacks, is the Citizen Kane of rock and roll novels.
But that doesn't make any sense. How about this?
If Velvet Goldmine were a book... And a comedy... And about critics...
Oh, never mind.
Anyway, Neal Pollack (The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature) has written a boldly funny and satirical work about a misplaced rock critic. The story, narrated by Paul St. Pierre -- a fellow, albeit more successful, critic -- concerns Neal Pollack (the main character, presumably related to the author, but who knows?) a critic who lives the rock and roll lifestyle. After waking up in the afternoon and injecting his daily fix of Tussin DM in his last remaining non-collapsed vein, he looks at himself in the mirror:
He stared at a hideous goblin, its face a mottled mess of hair patches and dried puke, its worn, emaciated bones poking at skin hanging off joints in loose folds, its belly bloated, legs bowed and arthritic, the last visage of a defeated wretch at the end of a long and lonely ride.
Wait. He was looking at a poster of Iggy Pop.
From the dedication ("For Jack and Meg") to the final words of the Selected Discography ("P.S. Fuck off.") -- including a title page that apes the cover of the classic Sex Pistols album from which he derives its title -- Pollack the author fills his two-hundred-plus pages with rock mythology. Norbert Pollackovitz is introduced to the music of Clambone Jefferson (about whose work Louis Armstrong said "It sounds like a clam, but with a bone in it") at an early age and it directs his life by continually turning up in his head and his dreams.
Along the way, he meets his neighbor Elvis Presley (whom his mother takes an instant liking to, in more than one way) and marvels over the similarity of their parents' names. Presley also lays the "Neal Pollack" moniker on him, starting him off on a career of drugs, debauchery, and declarative sentences that will take him all over the rock and roll spectrum and down the spiral of those unlucky enough to call themselves cool.
The first time he receives money for an article is a definite milestone. Followed not long after by jamming with Bob Dylan, a one-sided relationship with Joan Baez (later sabotaged by the jealous Dylan), the nurturing of the personality of one James Osterberg (rechristened Iggy Pop), and punching Michael Stipe (a personal favorite). All this is told by St. Pierre in the guise of a biography in which St. Pierre plays a role -- as Pollack seems to have a propensity for seducing his wives.
Name dropping is something that Pollack the author also does with ease. One would almost have to have a copy of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll to be able to keep up with the likes of MC5, Woody Guthrie, Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Peter Yarrow, Bruce Springsteen, and Kurt Cobain and "The Widow."
Pollack the author is obviously a fan and obsessive student of rock music. The details he fills Never Mind the Pollacks with, with only a few complete fabrications, come from one of two camps: well-known or easily-imagined. Even his most outrageous flights of fancy -- and you can never be too outrageous here -- are so well placed within context as to be mostly believable. And though his namesake exhibits a tendency towards purple prose in his own writing, this Pollack is direct and simple, perhaps knowing that his audience will be impressed by loving description in short bursts, but not in book form. If we wanted that, we'd be reading John Updike, after all.
But even with all his attention to detail, and while creating a compulsively readable and ferociously quotable book -- I smell a cult forming! -- Never Mind the Pollacks is still, at its core, simply a novelty. There is nothing here to make you think, nothing challenging, nothing even that stays with you after you've left it to go about your own mundane life. There is a lot going on here and Pollack could have chosen something about which to make a statement. Or maybe he simply chose not to.
This isn't necessarily a complaint. Quality and timelessness aren't always considerations with entertainment. Sometimes we just want escapist fantasy. That Neal Pollack delivers, and that is enough to recommend him. That, along with having as his hero a critic, however misguided, instantly bought his book a place in this reviewer's cold, opinionated heart.
In what is becoming a trend (at least for Pollack), there is a soundtrack to this novel (by The Neal Pollack Invasion) available through his Web site.