Back in 1990, David Foster Wallace wrote with creepy prescience about a direction that literature might take, maybe even had to take, once it had exhausted its then-burgeoning ironic/satirical/disaffected pose. In the middle of an impossibly long essay on irony and television (which now looks a little quaint—oh for the days when Alf counted as cynical!) Wallace observed:
“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels…who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. … Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval.”
In that sense, literature’s erstwhile bad boy, Neal Pollack, may at age 43 finally have reached peak rebellion.
The Austin-based author once known for pitiless satire and booze-fueled publicity stunts is now writing a mystery series. About yoga. For Amazon. He’s produced two so far: Downward-Facing Death and Open Your Heart, each released as a Kindle Serial before becoming available in print. Open Your Heart came out in paperback in November.
The books star Matt Bolster, a hard-living LAPD detective who, upon taking a yoga class to impress a girl, gets hooked and eventually leaves the force to pursue the way of the peaceful warrior. That is to say, he smokes a lot of pot, does a lot of yoga, and performs freelance private-eye work to pay the bills. (If you replace “LAPD detective” with “punk literary personality” and “private-eye work” with “reviewing cars,” you’ve got a pretty good bead on the author.) In the classic style, Bolster’s worlds collide when his former coworkers ask for help solving the gruesome murder of a big-time LA guru. Bolster, like Pollack, isn’t your average yogi; he’s a sports fan in his early 40s whose dude-ness sometimes borders on bro-hood. But his love of yoga is sincere, his knowledge vast, and his latecomer status serves as a kind of inoculation against the hero worship that yoga can engender. The premise gives Pollack the opportunity to savage yoga culture for its vanity and excess while essentially evangelizing for yoga itself—not the fitness craze, but the ancient art that can be practiced anywhere by anyone. While funny and trenchant, the books are fundamentally sincere.
That’s not what you’d expect if you caught Pollack’s literary debut. After toiling in obscurity for several years at a Chicago alternative newsweekly, Pollack rocketed to literary fame (such as it is) when Dave Eggers featured his comic essays in the debut issue of McSweeney’s magazine in 1998. The essays satirized modern journalism and “dripped with the same potent combination of aesthetic loathing and professional jealousy that has launched so many literary careers,” Pollack wrote in his 2010 memoir, Stretch. A collection followed, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, starring “Neal Pollack,” a fictional “Greatest Living American Writer” a la Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal. Performing in character, Pollack packed his book tour with stunts like holding a reading in the women’s bathroom of a Philadelphia train station and performing fake slam poetry for a crowd in Holland as David Byrne played bongos. The book wasn’t a smash, but The New York Times reviewed it favorably and Entertainment Weekly said its author “looked great in fatigues.” Pollack was cool.
But good times rarely last. His follow-up, the 2003 satirical rock-critic novel Never Mind the Pollacks, sold weakly despite Pollack touring with a punk band to support it. Worse, The New York Times called it “a blown opportunity” and Pollack an “ordinary humor dork, yet another doughy, 35-ish white man with a goatee and thinning hair.” Just as suddenly, Pollack was uncool.
He took it hard. “The confusion, the multiple identities, the very public search for self, it all suddenly exploded,” he wrote in Stretch. “I felt like I’d been ripped in two, possibly three.” As he poured out his heart to his wife, Regina, she listened patiently and rubbed his back. When the storm passed, “I picked my face up out of a viscous puddle of salt water and boogers. I looked at Regina, sniffling, my eyes lost and pleading.
“‘What now?’ I asked.
“‘You should do yoga with me,’ she said.”
Ten years later, Pollack teaches yoga, and three of his seven books are about it. He drinks little alcohol, though he smokes copious ganja, and a gentleness infuses his work. In Bolster’s universe, people give each other rides and adopt each other’s cats and, in many cases, live simply that others may simply live. Even the books’ wayward gurus are more sympathetic than the troubled yoga moguls on whom they’re based: Bikram Choudhury in Downward-Facing Death and John Friend in Open Your Heart.
I caught Pollack on the phone just before he boarded a plane for Iceland. He was scheduled to drive a Subaru hybrid across the tundra, not as an ironic stunt about global warming but as a job. Besides writing mysteries and shorter pieces about parenting, technology and yoga for various outlets, Pollack reviews cars for the Yahoo! auto blog. When I mention his new books’ gentleness, Pollack says, “I’m not James Ellroy. I don’t have an overarching dark vision of humanity. I’m a yoga instructor. I certainly have my dark moments in my mind, but I generally try to remain in a positive attitude toward life and toward people and toward things, and that is the yoga way. It makes one’s life a lot easier to live, so the books should reflect that. Bolster overall is a fairly content person.”
Pollack, too, seems content, or at least secure. He could hardly have picked a less hardcore genre. The Bolster books fit snugly into the thematic tradition that takes something pleasant or comforting (say, soup) and builds a mystery series around it (Chili Con Carnage, for instance, or Roux of Revenge). It’s an easy genre to caricature, but Pollack doesn’t. A longtime mystery fan, he writes the form affectionately straight, albeit in his own style. And while it may seem like Pollack just smushed together two things he likes and made books out of them, yoga is a less arbitrary mystery theme than most. Open Your Heart introduces its hero thusly:
“He wore light-brown pants crafted from the finest hemp, brown flip-flops, and a T-shirt depicting Dr. Bruce Banner meditating in lotus posture. The words ‘Hulk Relax’ were written underneath. There was some red in his eyes. He looked like he’d just rolled out of bed, not necessarily his own.
“Matt Bolster was a man with few attachments.”
The grizzled detective has few attachments not because his wife left him over his drinking but because attachment is the root of suffering. It’s one of Pollack’s many winks to fans of yoga, and mystery, and both.
All this sincerity and growth doesn’t mean Pollack has gone soft. Though he acknowledges that the Kindle mystery audience may be “a little older, maybe a little more conservative, maybe a little more middle-western” than the readership for Never Mind the Pollacks, the Bolster books are still satire. The difference is that unlike his early stuff, Pollack’s satire of yoga culture doesn’t come from a place of loathing or jealousy. It’s real critique, informed by experience and intended to defend something Pollack loves—yoga—from the nonsense that threatens it. All this happens within the traditional structure of a good yarn.
For example, Downward-Facing Death opens classically, with a throwaway character discovering a body, but first it introduces a main theme: vanity. Casey, the throwaway, “ looked like an Olympic swimmer: all bicep, pec, and sinew. His eyes were cue-ball white, and his skin shone like fresh-cleaned stainless steel. Some Sanskrit verses that he didn’t understand were tattooed on his right shoulder. Looking at his naked self in the mirror, he thought, I am fucking beautiful, and I will be forever. He was young, and not really aware that it was all going to rot away someday.”
Pollack is aware, and sincere, and—thank god—funny. That’s what keeps Downward-Facing Death and Open Your Heart from being, as David Foster Wallace feared, “dead on the page.”