Review of Alternadad by Neal Pollack (Random House, 2007).
Parenthood is a lifetime sentence. I mean, a lifelong blessing (oops, Freudian slip). According to the irreverent wisdom of hipster-writer/wannabe-rock star/purveyor-of-pop-culture/newly minted dad Neal Pollack, fatherhood is transformative no matter how you perceive it. In Alternadad, Pollack gives us the scoop on the ups and downs of rearing his poop-smearing, compulsively biting, adorably intelligent son Elijah--while trying not to lose his cool (or more of his hair).
Alternadad is a series of amusing anecdotes--some poignant, others grotesque--that takes readers from Pollack's single days in Chicago (with friends reminiscent of "Seinfeld" characters with more tattoos and less money) to bringing up baby in Austin with unconventional ideals and a school-of-rock mentality (baby Elijah makes requests for the Ramones while still in diapers.)
Pollack's ode to fatherhood reads with the self-reflexive absorption of a blogger and the moral debating of a Talmudic scholar. He laments over the gut-wrenching decisions and compromises that come with parenting territory. Regular soymilk or vanilla? Penalty box or no dessert? To snip or not to snip? (circumcision). As Pollack journeys into parenthood, conflicts become magnified, resentments inevitably emerge, and hipness begins to recede as quickly as his hairline. Still, Pollack manages to keep his cool by starting a subpar rock band. Well, sort of.
Alternadad is as much about Pollack's own metamorphosis into a full-fledged adult as it is about rearing a child. Although he strives to be the anti-SUV-driving suburban soccer mom, even in his irreverence for all things mainstream Pollack consistently finds himself becoming the poster boy for yuppieland. Carrying Elijah in the Baby Bjorn, walking his purebred Boston terrier on a leash, running out on his lawn sporting boxer shorts to tell the ruckus-making neighbors to quiet down, feeding his son capers instead of cheetos--all this and more force Pollack to an insightful conclusion: "These are but the trappings of yuppiedom! It's not who I am in my soul." Underlying the cute anecdotes is Pollack's internal struggle to negotiate the realities of fatherhood with his hipster image and progressive ideals. The truth is, it's hard to live on the edge when you rock out to the Wiggles.
So here's the irony: Pollack strives to flee the soul-sucking conformity of "yuppiedom" for a glamorized notion of urban life--authentic, gritty, real. This idea prompts a move from gentrifying Chicago to Philly, in large part because he sees a kid repeatedly bouncing a tennis ball off his front porch (ooh, authentic urban life!) and then on to Austin. It is this same urban lifestyle that generations past of Jewish grandparents exchanged for two-car garages and kidney-shaped swimming pools within "boring" suburban enclaves, the likes of which Pollack himself grew up in. After repeated attempts to effect change in his neighborhood, Pollack leaves Austin because it's unsafe. Can parents find the supposed character-shaping realness of urban life without crime and danger? Can Pollack give Elijah safety and privilege outside of sheltered suburbia? Pollack's grappling to match his ideals with his actions, and the inherent contradictions he faces in his quest, will resonate with readers. The bottom line is that what Pollack really wants transcends boundaries: the best life he can give his child.
Furthermore, Pollack is an intermarried Jew, and thus has another reason to poke fun at himself. In fact, he jokingly states that his marriage is in the "American Jewish manner" of Jews marrying non-Jews. "To Snip or Not to Snip" is the one chapter where Pollack really explores his Judaism. Pollack's wife is adamantly opposed to circumcising Elijah because of modern research describing the practice as painful and brutal; his parents will not consider Elijah their grandson if he remains uncircumcised. The chapter ends with freshly circumcised Elijah, Pollack and his wife bawling in the car on the way home after the procedure. Then there's "The Jew Who Cooked a Ham for Christmas," a chapter indicative of the way Pollack latches onto such loaded phrases for a cheap laugh. He spends the cultural currency of Jewish experiences like the Shiner Bock beer that practically seems to flow from faucets in Austin. His references to Jews and Judaism--the kiddie rockers with Jew-fros, the impressive but pricey Jewish preschool, Elijah's traumatic experience trying to get a popsicle at the JCC on Shabbat--are cliché and trite representations of a complex religion, but situations readers can relate to nonetheless.
Anyone with an alternative parenting philosophy, a penchant for potty humor, or an appreciation for witticism and snappy one-liners (my favorite is about my hometown--"the people of Rogers Park are the sediment left over after you put the city of Chicago through a sifter") will enjoy Alternadad. Readers should remember that being controversial and occasionally offensive is all part of Pollack's shtick. His journey is memorable precisely because he doesn't force false epiphanies or lay down heavy-handed morals about parenting. Perhaps because it doesn't take itself too seriously (not in spite of it) Alternadad could become a modern parenting guide for a generation still trying to figure it out.