Say what you will about not judging a book by its cover, the bill-ringed rubber ducky adorning the jacket of Neal Pollack’s Alternadad leaves little waddle room. It announces that this book is not going to make the perfect baby-shower gift for prospective parents seeking traditional role models, sage advice, or treacly anecdotes.
In Alternadad, Pollack, author of the love-or-loathe fictions The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature and Never Mind the Pollacks, has written what amounts to an extended meditation on arrested development — his own. But maintaining his status as club-hopping, weed-smoking hipster isn’t enough; Pollack wants to ensure that his son, Elijah, will inherit his coolness gene, will love the Ramones as much as Daddy does.
As semi-comical dilemmas and mini-crises threaten to accelerate his forward march into middle-age-hood, Pollack’s Peter Pan Syndrome powers on. Like most American dads in the post-feminist era, he has no qualms about taking Lamaze classes, changing poopy diapers, or even watching SpongeBob. And his daily worries are typical for a struggling parent with young offspring: bills, schools, livable housing, affordable health insurance. But retiring his rock-and-roll shoes is not an option for Pollack, who instead surmises that this would be the perfect time in life to start a band. And when his painter wife, Regina, suggests that the family’s financial problems might be alleviated if he’d give up pot, Pollack agrees only to a device that will require a smaller amount of marijuana to get him high.
There’s no question that Pollack treasures his son, or that he dotes on Regina. She does, after all, put up with her husband’s many indiscretions — from indulging in weed to taking off with his band just before his son’s first birthday. The real puzzle here is his admitted inability to come to terms with the notion that he might be a bigger baby than the baby.
Following the Pollacks in their moves from Chicago to Philadelphia to Austin, Alternadad chronicles the couple’s courtship, marriage, and impending parenthood, along with all the attendant parent-to-be trepidations, customized to suit a punk-rock lifestyle. Parenting for Dummies this isn’t, but neither is it as radical as Pollack might believe. It’s not so much the snarkiness (aimed at teachers and other parents, among others) that renders Alternadad a yawner as the pedestrian storytelling. The foibles of a stubborn Jewish guy failing in his dogged attempt to prepare a Christmas ham might have played out hilariously in a Seinfeld episode, but here it’s just a snoozy diversion.
ROCK DADDY: Pollack never faces up to the notion that he might be a bigger baby than his baby.
As the book winds down, with Elijah making the most of his terrible twos and becoming a behavioral problem at pre-school — biting other kids, sticking things up his nose, and generally wreaking havoc — you begin to wonder whether Pollack will experience an epiphany or just bumble along on his self-obsessed way. Although he’s more than justified in disdaining today’s over-protective precious parenting culture, Alternadad doesn’t make a convincing case for his alternative.
“At that moment,” he says after one play session with his son, “I loved being a daddy. Of course, at other moments, I kind of hated being a daddy. But that, as I was learning, comes with the daddy territory.” Rather than letting himself be defined as a parent, Pollack sees parenting as a role to be fit into his schedule. If he ever stopped trying to teach Elijah how to be cool, he might learn something from him.