Yoga-inspired journey is a stretch for cynic
Neal Pollack sprints through the first chapter of “Stretch’’ giving readers a breathy sketch of his quick rise in literary circles a decade ago, starting with the publication of several essays in the erudite hipster journal McSweeney’s. That quickly rolled into the book “The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature’’ and then a Vanity Fair column and guest spots on National Public Radio’s “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!’’
But like a particularly gripping episode of VH1’s “Behind the Music,’’ Pollack metaphorically stuffs all of these achievements into an InSinkErator of drugs and bad behavior and flips the switch. A few short years after Rolling Stone names him its “Hot Writer,’’ he’s reduced to writing copy for Weight Watchers brochures.
And this is where we meet Pollack at the beginning of “Stretch,’’ a book that attempts to show the evolution of a smart-aleck schlub into a yoga dude. Pollack spends much of that first chapter outlining what an angry jerk he became as his fortunes waned, emptying bottles of whiskey over his head and whining that a New York Times review calls him “yet another doughy, 35-ish white man with a goatee and thinning hair.’’
It is an ideal setup for Pollack’s voyage into the land of yoga, a discipline awash in earnestness and abnegation that could certainly use a firm slap of his angry, not-so-young man pathos and humor. But Pollack seldom goes deep enough to give readers a sense of any journey or evolution he may be experiencing as he starts softening his cynical approach to yoga. He spends so much time trying to be funny in early chapters that the heavy-handed humor, which possesses the subtlety of a Borscht Belt summer camp stand-up routine, gets in the way of his story instead of enhancing it. Lacking the instinctual patter of a writer such as David Sedaris, Pollack’s jokes start to resemble a volleyball match of serve, set, spike, repeat. You can see them coming at you from a considerable distance and eventually you begin ducking to get away from them.
This routine becomes particularly tiresome when he begins rolling out yoga cliches, such as uncontrolled flatulence or repeatedly hammering home the point that he trails the other participants in the class in physical conditioning. Pollack, who regularly describes himself as not particularly fit, hairy, and a tad lazy, is beset by a number of injuries throughout the course of his yoga development, but it is never entirely clear how yoga is helping or exacerbating these ailments. Instead, the story clumsily lumbers along, with Pollack rarely sharing the force or feelings that are pulling him deeper into this universe of yoga mats.
Instead, he offers a series of loosely glued tales that eventually begin to accumulate into something that resembles a journey. Not until Pollack finally leaves his Los Angeles neighborhood and heads to a yoga conference in San Francisco do we get a sense of what he’s hoping to attain. This also coincides with a point at which he stops battering readers with his comedy routine. By the time he latches onto a quirky but endearing yogi later in the book, we finally get a clearer look at Pollack the person, rather than the self-deprecating man who is laying on the smarm as thickly as a preschooler spreads Jif peanut butter on a slice of Wonder Bread.
“Stretch’’ is equal parts funny and frustrating. Given both the talent of the author and his choice of a subject that is ripe for the mocking, the book mostly feels like a lost opportunity to share the journey of a not-so-average American guy into uncharted territory.
Christopher Muther is the style writer for the Boston Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.