Neal Pollack is a Modern Bill Murray

Neal Pollack looks like Bill Murray, he sounds a bit like him, and he definitely acts the same way. It's the same kind of goofy sentimentalism that's part of his performance, the way he puts on what is clearly an act of know-it-all-ness but then drops his guard and starts belting out "America the Beautiful" into the mike.

Now, I'm trying not to be catty and vicious. I'm trying real hard. And Neal Pollack gives every impression of being a nice guy, and he had a lot of friends at the reading, and he's genuinely funny, I think, but still. This book of his, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature has no need to exist. It's a collection of parodies of magazine articles of a certain type, all built around the persona of "Neal Pollack," superstar author, born to a life of ease who travels the world with debonair grace, handing down his works of genius with a weary sigh and spreading the force of his personality to an awestruck world.

Yes, I will grant you, there are fatuous articles out there, there are plenty of uninteresting profiles of writers and even less helpful profiles of other celebrities, and there are the fatuous casual remarks of the idle rich who fancy themselves to be smart. And all of these things are readily susceptible to satire. But for goodness sake, it's like shooting fish in a barrel, over and over and over again. The only thing of interest here is the technical virtuosity of the writing, his ability to pick exactly the right specific detail to make a joke. And this stuff wears thin by the end of a reading, to say nothing about an entire book.

There was a commotion at one point: a man ran into the room screaming that his wallet had been stolen. Pollack left for the bathroom, Superman arrived and returned the wallet and plugged the book before leaving, and then Pollack came back and continued with the reading. While he was away, I was tempted to switch the author's copy of the book on the lectern with one from the shelf behind him. Or perhaps to start a similar commotion, albeit unexpected by Pollack, a few moments after he returned, and to finish by cursing that lousy Superman for not finishing a job. Or perhaps to heckle Superman, who gave a short and confused speech about saving Seattle from anarchy and making the world safe for the WTO.

But I didn't, nor did I do anything when a fellow in a wig and a Neal Pollack moustache in the first row asked a question about "Neal Pollack's" influence on the adult film industry. To have taken part would have been to drop down to his level, to take part in the cleverness contest. Whether you spin it as trying to be cool like Neal, or as trying to show how dumb and scripted Neal's act is, it would have amounted to the same thing: acting as though this sort of silly shenanigans were particularly original, exciting, worth encouraging. They're not. Perhaps I'm jaded before my time, but at some point, whatever you do has got to be about something more than your raw cleverness, there has got to be something more than the facile display of the quick-witted skewering of straw men.

Pollack kept on bumping up against this, kept on acknowledging that his work was fiction, that he had an agenda in writing it, that there were things that concerned him about this country, that the book itself was an object of beauty, all sorts of things. And every time, without fail, he'd undercut it with some easily canned line and slide back into the "Neal Pollack" persona, perhaps one of the least biting satires ever enacted. There was no connection between the humor and anything beyond the humor, not even any attempt to turn the "Neal Pollack" book tour's absurdities on the real Neal Pollack book tour, which gives every sign of being an amazingly nice and happy travelling show (his wife is on tour with him, and he spoke somewhat movingly about the encouragement he's been getting from fans who write to him).

I don't mean to sound like a broken record on these themes, but there has got to be something more, there has got to be some attempt to actually use irony towards some purpose, there has got to be some belief that there's going to be something revealed behind those toppled walls of defense, or that fragile flowers might grow out of the ruins. We need tireless biting cyniccal pessimism, and we need insane cynical optimism, and we need things so goofy or so inspired that they defy easy classification. We do not need the Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. Some people are just too nice to be satirists, and for all his wit, Neal Pollack is one of them.