pollack in portland: the greatest story ever told

Pollack, he explains, was on assignment from British Vogue, exploring the dark world of street life in small Pacific Northwest towns, and he single-handedly saved them both from certain death when a drug deal at a neighboring table went bad. The audience is rapt with attention as he describes the brutal machete attack that Pollack thwarted through quick thinking, unshakable bravery, expertise in the martial arts, and liberal doses of Taco John’s hot sauce….”


by marc covert


Anne Hughes has been told to close her coffee-and-biscotti reading room in the corner of cavernous Powell’s Books on Burnside and not to reopen before noon the following day. A visitor is coming, she is told, a very special visitor, and security will be tight; very, very tight indeed.

Across the pulsing thoroughfare that is Burnside street, denizens of the small yet vibrant bar known as the Eagle, mostly leather-clad male bikers, huddle in a squeaking mass, their burly, piquant features providing thin masks to their manifest awe. They too have been put on alert, alert that a very special personage indeed will soon be paying a brief yet momentous visit to this rosiest of all cities.

The crisp yet soggy night air is amist with great clouds of exhalations, shot into the starry gloom through flared nostrils of great beasts; they are horses, of course, noble steeds upon which are perched the cream of Portland’s finest; officers of the law hand-picked as emissaries to the huddled masses, huddled against said crispily soggy gloom; anxiously pleading through upturned faces for guidance, and receiving same. Smooth, silky-black batons are swung carefully upon their outstretched crania, offering up to the night the snappish reports of coated pine against bony brainpan.

Still they mass.

Still they wait.

Armed foot patrols, strong of helmet and light of step, police every street and stand at every corner, nearly outnumbering these pilgrims for whom a visit to this hallowed place of bookishness would be an essential part of their collective soul, even were it not blessed with His presence. But blessed by Him it is on this most revered of pagan nights, Friday October 13th, in the year 2000. He is, in a way, a pilgrim among pilgrims; a leading wordsmith uniquely qualified to articulate the plight of the mainly white, middle-to-upper-middle-class mob that seethes just under the soft, white underbelly of this sprawling-within-urban-growth-boundary metropolis. Tension is palpable as stoic law enforcement personages steel themselves to maintain order as the swirling humanity coalesces into a mass, single of mindset.

Pollack is here.

Neal Pollack, master of letters, Pulitzer Prize-winner (as well as three National Book Awards), journalist par excellence, witness to revolutions too numerous to count, poet, Culinary Institute of America graduate, lover to the rich, famous, and otherwise-all of this and more-Pollack is here, to read from his opus, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. His long-awaited compilation is complete after three torturous weeks of grueling work, and Powell’s employees have wheeled out fresh copies just for this occasion. The hastily cleared Pearl Room is filled, filled to bursting with an army of Portland’s literati, all scarcely able to contain their emotions as they wait for 7:30 sharp, the appointed hour for this once-in-a-lifetime event.

A hush falls over the audience as a young man with a passing resemblance to Kevin Sampsell approaches the microphone. He humbly acknowledges that he has never had an honor such as this, introducing a man who has had such a life-changing impact on him. “When I was fifteen,” he explains, “after Neal Pollack had won the Booker Prize and was riding high on the fame of his book, Listening to Silence, I was a reckless youth on the bad streets of Pasco, Washington.” Pollack, he explains, was on assignment from British Vogue, exploring the dark world of street life in small Pacific Northwest towns, and he single-handedly saved them both from certain death when a drug deal at a neighboring table went bad. The audience is rapt with attention as he describes the brutal machete attack that Pollack thwarted through quick thinking, unshakable bravery, expertise in the martial arts, and liberal doses of Taco John’s hot sauce. “The man-this great journalist, whose strengths stretch far beyond the page-had saved my life,” he concludes. “Let’s all give a triumphant welcome to him: Mr. Neal Pollack.”

Thunderous applause bursts forth from the throng as pent-up enthusiasm finally has release; a grunting, lurching wretch appears from behind the bookshelves and wobbles up to the lectern. Staring in disbelief, the crowd’s applause dwindles to nervous tittering. The hapless brute before them, clothed in filthy rags, his face covered with a goalie’s mask, emits sharp barking-like sounds, and then launches into his presentation. Is this Pollack? they whisper incredulously. Could this be? Is this some sort of freakish, cruel joke?

Would that it were. Indeed the poor monstrosity before them is Neal Pollack. There has for years been an unspoken agreement among members of the media to look the other way when it comes to Pollack’s hideous deformity; much the same was done with FDR’s paralysis from polio, or JFK’s constant questing for root massages. However, since smokebox.net makes it their policy never to acknowledge even spoken agreements, this writer will not hesitate to expose the great man’s infirmity here. On his back is a huge, misshapen hump; his face is best described as “all chin.” Not Jay Leno “all chin;” we’re talking huge, bulbous, skyward-thrusting, stubble-encrusted chin. Even covered with a hockey mask it elicits gasps of horror from the crowd.

Undaunted, Pollack forges on, but his words are interrupted by reverential hoots of derision. A lesser man would shrink from such withering scorn; Pollack instead shrieks like a scared little schoolgirl and runs away, sobbing hysterically as the crowd erupts into all-out howls of laughter.

The guffaws, snorts, and Bronx cheers stop abruptly as the young man with a passing resemblance to Kevin Sampsell bounds to the mike. “Neal! Neal! Come back! ” He then turns his rage on the cruel, worthless bastards sitting before him. “I don’t know what you people are trying to prove! This is a very rude welcome for a man who has meant so much for all of us…” The Sampsell-resembling man trembles with tearful fury as the now-silent, remorseful mob realizes what inhumanity they have practiced upon this noble, grotesquely malformed man. A chant begins: “Neal! Neal! NEAL! NEAL!”

The love that overflows from this room works wonders on the great man, bringing him back from his hissy-fit, springing with new-found energy to the podium, and this assemblage is witness to a true miracle: renewed, rejuvenated, like a phoenix Neal Pollack has emerged, thrown down his goalie’s mask, shed his horrific hump, and taken his place rightly before these hopelessly human ingrates who minutes before whooped at him in abject disdain. He is reborn, and through his rebirth he has shown his followers the folly of their foolish ways.

“My name is Neal Pollack, ” he begins, “and I am the greatest living American writer. ” The audience can scarcely believe it when he launches immediately into the introduction of his Anthology. This stirring account of the birth of his new book expertly illustrates the dilemma he faces daily: that of reconciling himself to the awesome burden that is his; that of being the greatest living writer-no, the greatest writer, period-of his time. He traces his lineage to the Kennedys, the Hefners, and the Rockefellers; he tersely recounts his experiences in the South Pacific, “where I killed people in the service of empire.” His first novel, Killing People in the Service of Empire, wins the National Book Award; his following books change literature forever, “until the next book, which changed literature forever, again.” He puts America on notice, mincing no words as he expresses his intention to meet, and even sleep with, as many of her people as is humanly possible even for him; leaving those he has blessed thusly with fortitude “when I have motored on to the next American hamlet…this book is your world, and mine.”

Scarcely has the audience recovered from this frontal assault of utterances when Pollack begins his second selection: “I Am Friends With a Working-Class Black Woman,” from his book Leon: Return to the Streets, 1996. Enraptured, they listen as he describes his relationship with Corah Johnson and her extended family, poor black inner-city residents who finally, after gut-wrenching “rap sessions,” finally arrive at the conclusion that there is much, much more work to be done before we can all just get along. His plea for understanding, for a cessation of the hate and distrust that divide us all, strikes a nerve in all of us:

“Please understand me!” I shouted, desperately. “I don’t want your hatred! It’s not my fault that I went to Exeter and Harvard! I can’t help the fact that I founded an avant-garde theater company in the East Village! My appearances on MSNBC mean nothing to me! I have traveled over most of the world, and have seen so many things, so much poverty, and so much war! I have written extensively about people in trouble! Don’t you see? I am not a representative of everything you hate! I’m myself. Not a working-class black woman or an upper-middle-class white journalist and author who’s engaged to a beautiful Brazilian law professor! Just myself! And I don’t think Malcolm & Eddie are funny!”

Pollack takes a short time to ask about Oregon’s Measure 9: “What was the name of that group? The OCA? Well, fuck them. That’s got to be one of the more evil things to come down the pike in a long time. They are stupid and they are wrong.”

The pensive mood is broken then by the opening lines of “The Albania of My Existence,” his epic essay: “I’ve been going to bed lately on a pile of jagged stones covered only by a thin cotton blanket half-eaten by moths…” He goes on: “I wake up early this morning and watch the village children play soccer with the bloated carcass of a cat…” The pain is palpable as he recounts the agonizing leave-taking he was forced to endure at the end of his assignment in that war-ravaged land:

I am leaving tomorrow. The town has pooled its remaining money together, three dollars, to throw me a farewell party. I hug grandma Ninotchka, my favorite family member, for a long time…”You have brought a beacon of hope into our dark and miserable world,” she says. “And thank you for not stealing my oatmeal like the man from The New York Times.”

Now he opens up the reading to any questions the audience may have; eagerly they pepper him with queries: “How many books did you print?” “Where do you live in Chicago?” “Is that your cat covering your testicular region in the nude poster of you included with the original 500 copies of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature?” “How did you hook up with McSweeney’s?” “I notice you were born in Boston in 1930; that would make you 70 years old today. How do you stay so young-looking?” The shouting of questions has no discernible effect on this grizzled old veteran of numerous foreign wars and the PR work they entail. He answers only the last one, choosing his words carefully: “Exfoliants.”

The crowd is his, absolutely and unreservedly. There is not a man, woman, or child in this room who would not gladly roll over and let Pollack have his way, this writer included. But there is no time for that; the mountainous pile of Neal Pollack’s Anthology of American Literature has been snatched apart eagerly by his rabid devotees, who now clamor riotously for the author to embellish said tomes with his mighty quill.

Pollack signs endless copies of his masterpiece for the frenzied multitude, sitting at a simple yet meticulously appointed collapsible table; an empty folding chair sits next to him, leaned against the table; as always, this chair is held in a perpetual state of “dibs,” called symbolically for Wally Trumbull, Pollack’s Exeter roommate, his first love, the man who taught Pollack all he ever needed to know about true, manful, towel-snapping, rapturous passion.

Sweating profusely under the steaming klieg lights, Pollack motions for a towel with which to wipe his brow; one is produced by a toadying fan and Pollack swipes it across his countenance and in the same fluid motion whips it back into the face of the admirer. The awestruck man gasps to see a perfect image of Pollack appear on the dripping relic. Weeping, he takes his place back in line, for he knows that Pollack is a man of principle, and in his world, one simply does not take cuts.


Originally published:
Issue Three
November 2000


The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature is published in cooperation with McSweeney’s Books, rather than the usual publishing house shysters. Powell’s Books has an ample supply at $16.00 a pop. You would be well advised to purchase this book; better yet, order it online at www.nealpollack.com.

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