September 14, 2005

An Interview With Neal Pollack

The internationally renowned novelist and journalist talks to Gelf about noir, comedy, and the state of the written word. And about how Joe Buck is an asshead.

Aaron Zamost

Neal Pollack doesn't want you to know that some of the best new journalism today can be found on the internet: "I don't want to tip my hand too much," he says, "because I don't want my gig getting taken away from me." Pollack's "gig" is to further his international reputation as the self-proclaimed Greatest Living American Writer, and while he admits that blogging has contributed a great deal to writing in general, the ascendance of the genre won't remove him from relevance just yet. "[Blogging] is just different. It's good because it's opened the field up to more people—but it's also opened up the field to more complete morons and hacks. It's free-market journalism. And in general, the really good, clever, interesting people are going to rise to the top."

Neal Pollack
Courtesy Neal Pollack
The man who almost brought down the New York Times.
Pollack has certainly used the internet to boost his literary reputation; he has written for Salon and Slate, and his website often doubles as a blog. But Pollack is best known for his books of satire, typically written in a high-handed, Vanity Fair-style, look-at-me-I'm-Norman-Mailer voice. While none of his books have brought him the level of mainstream popularity enjoyed by humor writers like Dave Barry and David Sedaris, Pollack is far and away the wittiest of the bunch. It's not even close. Sedaris may be funny, but he never seems brainy: You won't find many Ernest Hemingway or Che Guevara jokes in Me Talk Pretty One Day.

You will find those jokes in The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, Pollack's best book of satire, and in his first novel, 2003's Never Mind The Pollacks, a Hunter Thompson-esque trip through the life of fake music critic Neal Pollack. Like the writers at The Daily Show and The Onion, Pollack is at his best when he fuses high-brow with low-brow humor, and he rarely strays from the self-deprecation of comedians like Conan O'Brien and Woody Allen: This is a guy who writes a column for entitled Bad Sex with Neal Pollack.

Pollack shifts gears dramatically in his newest book, Chicago Noir, a collection of short stories he edited for Akashic books' Noir Series. Pollack's contribution to the collection is one of the four or five best stories in the book. It's clear from its opening sentence ("The guy at the end of the bar was dead") that he's nailed the characteristically detached noir timbre, and Pollack manages to keep his descriptions believable without hamming it up to the point of annoyance. Some of the book's better stories dispatch with this tone altogether; Jim Arndorfer's story on a Packers fan's run-in with a Bears fan is an excellent example of how to write a modern noir narrative that can be read without any familiarity with traditional crime fiction.

As is the case with most short-story collections, Chicago Noir is pretty inconsistent; some of the pieces probably belong in another uninspiring publication from "The Best American Series." But at its best, it's an excellent, inventive take on an old style of writing. (The best story by far is Kevin Guilfoile's "Zero Zero Day," which recaps the lifestyle of a man obsessed with monitoring police radio frequencies.)

Pollack spoke with Gelf about the book, as well as politics, sports, and the current state of literature. If only Salman Rushdie had a blog.

Gelf Magazine: How did you come to edit Chicago Noir?

Neal Pollack: I wrote a short story for Brooklyn Noir. And Brooklyn Noir was so good, and it was so rich, and it just felt really original and fresh, like new life was getting kicked into an old genre. I guess I've kind of grown tired of the voice of contemporary fiction.

GM: Will you explain to me what "noir" really means?

NP: In general, a noir story, book or movie has at its center a loner protagonist, who either willingly or by accident finds himself thrust into a situation he can't escape.

GM: Does it have to be seedy?

NP: It does have to be seedy; it doesn't have to be poor, though. There's lots of good noir that takes place among the upper classes, like The Talented Mr. Ripley. It doesn't have to be just people beating up bums in waterfront bars. That's kind of cliché in a way.

GM: Although there is a story in this book where a guy beats up a bum in a restaurant bathroom.

NP: He doesn't beat up a bum in a bathroom, he beats up a Bears fan. Some people would claim it's an equivalent. But the real key is you've got that alienated protagonist, and you've got a really strong sense of place. Really good noir books are rich in setting.

GM: So why is Chicago a good noir setting?

NP: Chicago is a big city with a lot of diversity, in terms of income level and ethnicity. But there's also a lot of loners in the city. A lot of lonely, urban-type professions—but there's also a lot of crime. So you've got that mix, and a low-lying sense that there's something wrong, that there's some sort of injustice. And I think these are good times for noir because these are feelings that we all walk around with every day. These are grim times.


GM: You did write about Hurricane Katrina on your website this week.

NP: You have to blow that out of your ass a little bit. It's like, I've got a website. But you know, I got an email this week that there are some evacuees being settled in an apartment building in our neighborhood. We had an extra bed and other stuff that we decided to take over there, and we get to this apartment and these are people that are living among nothing. They have a bag of clothes, sleeping bags, and a few CDs or whatever. And multiply them by a million, and all of a sudden you are living in the Dust Bowl, except it's water instead of dust. So that's grim. And on top of that you have an American governmental bureaucracy that is as uncaring and as rigid and as paranoid as anything to rival Communist-era Poland. So you throw those two things together and all of a sudden you're living in a noir nightmare.

GM: It's gotten to the point where The Daily Show isn't even making jokes anymore. They show the president, and they summarize the federal response, and people laugh. Do you feel like it's gotten to the point where everything about Bush is funny, but at the same time nothing about Bush is funny?

NP: These are just incredibly grim times. There's lots of laughter to be had out of that, but from sort of a noir perspective, there's a rich trove of material and this is just a natural aesthetic response to it. I think the wrong way to go is to be sort of whimsical. These are not whimsical times.

GM: Have politics always been so absurd, or am I just paying more attention to the news than I was 10 years ago?

NP: I mean, geez, what can you say about that? The Nazi party was politics, Stalin's Russia was politics. Politics have been more absurd than this, it's been worse than this. I don't know that American politics have ever been this absurd. You have this weird confluence of big business and fundamental Christianity with serious power. It's creating a soul vacuum. These are just really weird and grim times. We can have our little blue state laughs at it all, but it's still happening, and it can't be stopped.


GM: You've been writing about sports a lot more. Is that because the Suns are finally good?

NP: No, mostly I've been writing about sports because I'm being asked to. I wrote an article about Lance Armstrong, and how he's taken over my gym. And I did the one about football players doing yoga. It's just foreplay at this point.

GM: Do you enjoy writing sports more than writing other things?

NP: It's not a matter of liking it more or less, it's just fresh for me right now. I think the time is right for me at the moment, because sportswriting has reached such a nadir in its quality. It's so terrible right now. It's hard to find good sports prose.

GM: It bothers me that they've taken the best sports journalists and hidden them away somewhere. Bob Costas is one of the best baseball announcers out there and NBC has sent him to cover horseracing and the Olympics.

NP: I grew up listening to Vin Scully on the radio, so for me it's kind of heartbreaking to have to sit there on Sunday night and listen to Joe Morgan and Johnny Miller drone on and on. It's interminable.

GM: But do you like them more than Joe Buck and Tim McCarver?

NP: They're way better than Joe Buck and Tim McCarver. At least John Miller is not a moronic jingoist. Joe Buck is an asshead.

GM: ESPN has been bothering me a lot recently too. I don't like when I go to now, sometimes it just gives you an ad, and makes you wade through all sorts of stuff before you can even get to anything.

NP: Not only that, there's actually nothing on there to read. It's all ESPN Insider. I don't want to pay money to read Skip Bayless. Or anyone.

GM: Do you think sportswriting has declined because of the decline in the general quality of news coverage?

NP: Yes, but they didn't have as far to fall. I mean let's face it: it is sports. But I do think the rise of the multiple 24-hour networks has hurt the quality of sports writing. All it is anymore is opinion. And it's uninformed opinion.

GM: What sports coverage do you like?

NP: There's Inside the NBA, which is one of the best shows on television. I mean, Charles Barkley is to sports broadcasting what Seinfeld was to sitcoms: There will never be another. His opinions are interesting, he's hilarious, he says the wrong things, but he makes them sound right anyway. Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy on is interesting. But I have sort of noticed that goodsports writing—that there are a lot of good blogs, really entertaining sports blogs out there.


Dave Eggers
Neal Pollack will not break his Dave Eggers omertà.
GM: The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature is really one of the funniest books I've ever read. Something like: "Here's a joke about Toni Morrison. Now let's talk about masturbation." Where did this book come from?

NP: I was doing parodies of individual bad magazine pieces, just making fun of bad magazine journalism. So when it came time to put it into a book—it was originally published by Dave Eggers—he and I just sat around and sort of cooked up this character. And it took me a few starts to find the voice, but when I did, it was off and running.

GM: When you write a joke in the Anthology like, "I was doing whippets with Charlize Theron," do you run that by her first? Or are you hoping she doesn't read it?

NP: I think it's pretty much naturally assumed there that I'm lying.

GM: You mentioned Dave Eggers. I don't think I know of a book that more of my friends hate than A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

NP: I'm not allowed to comment on matters relating to Dave Eggers. Although I would love to hear what your reasoning is.

GM: I read it and I thought it was really showoff-y—and it wasn't even interesting or different enough for it to have a reason to be so showoff-y. I read it and I knew that so many people really loved it—maybe I didn't like it because I wanted to rebel, similar to why I didn't like The Da Vinci Code.

NP: I refuse to accept The Da Vinci Code as literature. I simply refuse. To me The Da Vinci Code is nothing more than patent medicine in book form. And that's totally fine, but it's nothing more than that.

GM: It's like The Firm.

NP: The Firm's another one. No one gives a fuck about The Firm anymore. You know it exists, but 25 year-olds 25 years from now won't know what The Firm is.

GM: What kind of stuff do you think is funny out there?

NP: I consistently laugh at the Daily Show. The Office is great, very funny. There's a BBC show called This is Alan Partridge. You've probably never seen that. It just came out on DVD. It's really, really funny. In terms of writing that really cracks my ass up ... there isn't any. It's easier to find something on TV or in the movies that makes you laugh a lot, but writing, actually laughing out loud at a book, it's hard to come by.

GM: What was the last book to make you laugh out loud?

NP: The last book that made me laugh out loud was Motherless Brooklyn. Hilarious. Nothing is funnier than a detective from Brooklyn with Tourette's syndrome. Funniest thing I've ever read in my life. Also the new Salman Rushdie novel, Shalimar the Clown.

GM: Really?

NP: Well, it's about a clown. How could a book with the word "clown" in the title not be funny?

GM: I'm not sure what I think about Salman Rushdie.

NP: I was kidding about Rushdie.

GM: Well, I hope so. I mean, The Satanic Verses?

NP: Well if he'd named it Satanic Verses: The Clown—that would have been a great title. Satanic Verses: The Clown. Think about it. If you put "The Clown" on any of his books: Midnight's Clown."

GM: Haroun and the Sea of Clowns.

NP: Yeah! Think about it. All of a sudden his entire oeuvre changes. And that, young fellow, is what they pay me the big bucks for.

GM: Making fun of Salman Rushdie?

NP: Yes. On the phone at 10:15 at night.

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Article by Aaron Zamost

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