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I've been going to bed lately on a pile of jagged stones covered only by a thin cotton blanket half-eaten by moths. This is one of the worst possible sleeping arrangements I could imagine. Sometimes I wonder how things got this way, but I have to remember that I am a journalist, novelist, radio producer, and poet, and I am here in Albania to find out what life is really like for a family in the poorest country in Europe. I have personally borne witness to much human suffering. People here are beset by unwanted refugees, obscure diseases, and limited opportunities to express themselves through fashion. I must tell you: Things are not good.
We had dirt for lunch today. All twenty-three of us. Jumanji, the patriarch of this family, is a short, bald, armless man who looks older than his eighty-seven years. He tells me that dirt has been of short supply in Albania lately, and he worries about his family's diet. I have tried to make our food taste better using some of the skills that I learned at the Culinary Institute of America, but with no success. My considerable abilities seem useless here; I am a Rhodes scholar, but no one in Albania has even heard of Cambridge, much less of England.
Although this family's house has no plumbing, consistent heat source, or exterior walls, they do have satellite television. I was tired today from all my reporting, so I relaxed by watching CNN's Eastern European Entertainment Minute. I saw that a good friend of mine had won a jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, which made methink about the awards and honors I've gained in my life, the trophies, the ribbons, and the cash. In the face of this Albanian poverty and hopelessness, they all seem somehow trivial now. Do you know what I mean?
I wake up early this morning and watch the village children play soccer with the bloated carcass of a cat. I've been here so long that this kind of thing doesn't bother me anymore, so I join in. I score three goals and make a game-winning save. The children gather around me and ask about my life in the more bohemian sections of Brooklyn. I show them a picture of my girlfriend.
"She is very beautiful," says one of them.
"Yes," I say, "and very wealthy. She is a human-rights activist who has also written three prize-winning novels."
Later, a man is impaled on a stake in the town square, while a desperate, ravaging mob tears at his clothes to wear as their own. I want to ask: For what crime was this man sentenced to die? But I do not speak Albanian.
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. She works twenty hours a day, six days a week as a plutonium miner to feed her family, and spends her precious free time, what little there is, as a volunteer gravedigger.
"You have brought a beacon of hope into our dark and miserable world," she says. "And God bless you for not stealing my oatmeal like the man from the New York Times. "
I am not prepared for the immense wave of emotion that I am experiencing. Nothing I went through in college, not even having dinner with two presidents, could have possible prepared me for this. I cry silent tears, and pray for the people of this sorrow-ridden country, and for myself.
(From Red Curtain, Blue People, 1985)The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. Copyright © by Neal Pollack. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
|The Albania of My Existence||1|
|I am Friends with a Working-Class Black Woman||3|
|It is Easy to Take a Lover in Cuba||9|
|Portrait of an Andalusian Horse Trainer||15|
|The Burden of Internet Celebrity||19|
|Interlude: "The Oprah Winfrey Show" March 15, 1996||23|
|My Week at Sea||29|
|Letter From Paris||35|
|I Have Slept with 500 Women||39|
|Introduction to the New Slavery||41|
|Stand by John||45|
|A Doctor Cannot Save Your Life||49|
|An Interview with My Sister, Who Is a Lesbian||53|
|To Search for the Celtic Tiger||57|
|Interlude: The Pollack-Wilson Letters||63|
|Teenagers: The Enemy Within||77|
|Interlude: The Paris Review Interview, June 27, 1976||95|
|The Subcomandante Rides at Dawn||103|
|One Writer's Routine||117|
|Why Am I So Handsome?||121|
|Witness for the Revolution||131|
|Secrets of the Mystery Jew||139|
|Coda: A Review of My Contemporaries||149|
My mother was killed by Cossacks in 1917, but revived by a necromancer. She later met my father, an Argentine freighter captain, at bordello in New Orleans, where she was working as a madam to pay her way through dental school. I was born a few years later. The most important event in my life occurred at age six, when I published my first book, Homage to Orwell, in which I dismissed my subject's work as the "ravings of a lunatic hack," adding that "there is no such thing as talking animals."
Much later in life, I worked with Kenny Gamble and his partner, Huff, and became a primary architect of The Sound of Philadelphia (TSOP), producing such bands as the O'Jays, the Soul Spinners, and Patti LaBelle on Fire. As the protagonist in The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, I don't really talk about those musical experiences, preferring instead to focus on my never-successful plot to steal Hemingway's diaries and pawn them off on the public as my own.
Paris in the '50s was a delight. Jean-Paul, Simone, and I would sit at cafes for hours, arguing about who would pick up the check. One summer, Burroughs and I drove to Tangiers. Paul Bowles wasn't home, so we beat up his houseboy and stole his opium. Gore Vidal caught a flight and met us in Marrakech, where we all had a contest to see who could complete a novel the fastest. I won.
In the end, this book is the story of one man's struggle with himself, and with nature, and with the beautiful geisha who became his wife. A secret drowning and a forgotten key that unlocks the closet of forever also become plot points, inspired by my aunt Estelle's inspiring attempts to become the first woman to visit Florence in the summer and stay at a nice hotel with reasonable rates.
The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, however, is not a political book. There is nothing controversial about it, and it should be purchased by readers of all ages. The central themes -- petty, jealous rivalry, careerism at all costs, infidelity, target marketing, and loyalty to one's president and god -- appeal to people of all nationalities and faiths. Also, it is short, funny, and I love you. (Neal Pollack)
Posted October 24, 2000
What could be said about this book? At first glimpse, it is a collection of mostly dirty, related short stories about a writer with an oversized ego and his sexual and political escapades. From page one, it is evident that these are some of the funniest short stories to be read; with gut wrenching laughs coming from all sorts of double entendres. But the deeper you read into the book, the more you appreciate the underlying satire. While in some parts it is hard to tell what is being satirized, at least for younger readers like myself, other satire is bitingly clear and adds to the enjoyment of the book. The satire is what shows that this is a carefully thought out work, rather then a book based solely on sex jokes. So, if you are a part of the intelligent crowd, you will enjoy this book for the satire, and if you have never been deep in analyzing literature, then you will love this book for the sex jokes. But either way, this book will shock you at times and make you cry of laughter at others.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.