Friday, July 30, 2010

Harvey Pekar: October 8, 1939 – July 12, 2010



News of Harvey Pekar's recent death has not been easy for me to digest. Now that Pekar's seemingly incessant running commentary has in fact ceased, it feels like a significant amount of air has been let out of the white balloons floating over my own head.

Pekar was the first, best blogger. He sifted through anything and everything in his search for the poetry of human value. People say he “explored the mundane,” but that's wrong: he turned the mundane on its head until it was mundanity's exact antithesis. In this, his early attempts at stand-up served him very, very well. His shticks never began with, “What's the deal with airline food?”; they began with, “Ever since I was a kid it seemed I collected something.” The details continued in a matter-of-fact exposition that disarmed and entranced. Where the hell is he going with this? became Oh my God: that's me!

I first tuned in during the late 80s at the comic book store, where I opened American Splendor and encountered this short chapter about record collecting (excerpted from Ron Mann's neat-o doc Comic Book Confidential). At the time I was gripped in a collecting frenzy of my own: comic books. When I read Pekar's confession, something turned for me, too. I bought the Pekar/crumb work, and left the men in tights alone. It's funny how your mind sometimes works.

As in the above example, Pekar's gentler observations ended with a “How 'bout that?” tone, but he was also keen on the not-so-gentle observations. If he was pissed off about something — and he was always pissed off about something — he let everybody know. If he was wrong, he wasn't just quick to admit it — he reveled in the fact, before moving on to the next outrage.

I was never a Pekar completist, nor would I recommend that route to the innocent bystander. But you can't go wrong with The Best of American Splendor (A). The movie (with Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, who are both brilliant) is a knowing, quick-witted abuse of Pekar and his material, and a lovely experience because of it. Our Cancer Year (A) is a good read, not just for cancer survivors, but anyone who's married. And The Quitter (A) is just out-and-out superb.

I rather doubt The Beats (A) will be Pekar's final work to receive printed notice, but it is a coda of sorts. For once Pekar is talking about someone besides himself, giving deft summaries of people who were bums and heels, who produced a lot of questionable work but also not a few artifacts of lasting value. If there is a “theme” that runs through Pekar's typically unblinking appraisal of this scene, it is the surprising depth of friendship that held each of these faulty and frequently cruel beings in good stead. I'd say that is the worthy epitaph for Pekar himself: a guy who could rally other people into helping him illustrate and bring to larger narrative life his own inglorious, and thoroughly American, splendor.

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