Sunday, 22 July 2012

Downward Dude

Any writer would love to have Neal Pollack's CV. He was a staff writer for The Chicago Reader in the Nineties. In the early Noughties he contributed to literary journal McSweeney's and was a columnist for Vanity Fair and He also freelanced for many other online and print publications such as Men's Journal, Maxim, and Yoga Journal. Rolling Stone named him its "Hot Writer" in 2000.

So it may be a mystery to some why his bibliography includes what I'd consider "shtick lit".

A sample passage from his "rock and roll novel" Never Mind The Pollacks (2003), courtesy of Amazon:

...I'd just seen Pollack at Lollapalooza in Seattle eight months before. He'd been gnawing on a piece of fry bread.

"Neal," I'd said, "you look terrible."

"Grumph," he'd said. "Look who it is. Paul St. Pierre, the world's most pretentious f—."

"What are you doing here?"

"Shilling for Alice in Chains," he said. "Those ass-eating phonies."

Pollack was standing in front of a yellow tent. A banner over his head read "Anal Piercings. $10."

"This isn't like you," I said.

His eyes teared.

And from his parenting memoir Alternadad (2007):

I was napping pleasantly on a futon one Saturday afternoon when my wife flung open the door. She held a filthy sponge in her left hand. A look of terrified desperation clouded her eyes.

"Catastrophe!" she said.

"What?" I said.

"Your son took off his diaper. He's throwing shit all over his bedroom! And he's enjoying himself!"

"That's bad."

"It's disgusting, that's what it is! Now get out of bed and help me clean!"

...Okay, maybe the books aren't like that cover to cover. But passages like those can be painful reading.

The new Neal
Pollack is also quite the satirist, as shown in the two snippets above. If there's no one or nothing to parody, he turns his pen on himself. But you wonder, from the exaggerated narrative and the sometimes outrageous dialogue, if he's just stretching the truth a bit for our amusement.

“Stretch” by Neal Pollack
Kind of appropriate for him to attempt an autobiographical account of his transformation into a "yoga dude" called Stretch.

From this book, it seems that Pollack's foray into yoga and yoga journalism began with the merciless takedown of his rock and roll novel, Never Mind The Pollacks in the New York Times. (Reading his endorsement of self-publishing, one wonders if he wrote it with the reviewer's caustic tones ringing in the furthest recesses of his mind.)

Like the good wife she's been, Regina tries to help, by inviting the emotionally battered spouse to do yoga with her. "You'll look sex-eeeee..." she adds, swaying her hips suggestively. "You'll be a sexy, sexy yoga man."

But the word that got Pollack on his way to his first downward dog was, "free". Presumably his wife's free membership at a fitness centre.

Thus, a whole new world opens up for the then doughy, 35-ish white man with a goatee and thinning hair. Including worlds of pain and fatigue as his sports-channel-engorged couch-potato physique opens up to the universe. But he sticks to it, going from yoga class to yoga class and enduring the often quirky yoga instructors. Towards the end, Pollack ponders starting his own yoga class. Will he, or won't he?

His efforts, it seems, paid off. His back, neck and the rest of him gets better, like his wife said. He also starts writing about yoga for The Yoga Journal. Like a slowly blooming lotus blossom, he becomes a more well-rounded, conscientious human being. The transformation is encouraging. Inspiring, even.

Except for occasional lapses like:

I stood on my side of the bed, naked, twirling my arms and grinding my hips.

"What are you doing?" [Regina] asked.

"I'm showing off my sexy yoga dance," I said.

"That's funny," she said. "I thought you were looking at yourself in the mirror and farting into the fan."

. . .

I flexed one of my arm howitzers.

"Namaste, motherf—er!" I said.

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It's my yoga catchphrase."

"You can't have a yoga catchphrase."

"Why not?"

"Because yogis don't have catchphrases. Also, it's totally obnoxious."

"Whatever," I said. "I can feel the yoga power growing inside me."

"You idiot," she said.

Yoga may give a guy wings, but thank his wife for keeping him from flying into the yoga sun.

Too much testosterone
It's easy to see why Pollack can be charming - at times. His writing gives one the impression that he puts on no airs and doesn't hide anything, a guy who'll give it to you straight. I like that. And he is funny.

In Stretch, however, his self-parody sometimes borders on self-mutilation. The start of his long path towards nirvana can torturous to read. Dude humour, I think it's called. Not really for me. His vivid prose doesn't help much when the need to tune out certain mental images arises.

When he's not making a fool of himself, Pollack shows of the chops that landed him all those gigs that would make other writers green with envy. His interactions with some of his favourite - and not-so-favourite - yoga teachers and the chapter on Bikram yoga struck a chord with anyone who's experienced them. Yoga concepts and facts are made accessible to the layman without being too satirical.

Though more of a chronicle of Pollack's transformation into a "yoga dude", Stretch also has pretty good reporting on the modern yoga industry, if you can ignore the fart jokes and self-deprecating references to his Jewish ancestry at the beginning. Given the strength of his journalism, this book would've been just as good - maybe even better - without the extra testosterone.

Rescue comes in the form of Mrs Pollack, who's reduced to a "yoga widow" towards the book's conclusion. She gets some of the best lines and, as shown above, dishes out reality checks when the husband gets light-headed over his (then) new obsession. Aaaand for supplying such moments as...

"So," I said to Regina at dinner the night before the [San Francisco Yoga Journal conference], "these women I'm driving up to San Francisco..."

"I thought you were driving up with a couple of Indian guys."

"You don't have to be Indian to be Sikh," I said. "Also, they're not Sikhs. They're Canadian."

"So, let me get this straight," she said. "You're driving two Canadian women to San Francisco by yourself?"


A vast silence ensued, during which Regina weighed the possibilities of divorce.

"30 Rock was really funny last night, huh?" I said.

We love you, Mrs Pollack. Please write your side of the Stretch story. Don't you think Yoga Widow has a nice ring to it?

This review was based on an advance reading copy.

The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude

Neal Pollack
Harper Perennial (2010)
320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-06-172769-6


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