The Quitter, by Harvey Pekar

The Quitter

The Quitter is the third Harvey Pekar book I’ve read. This is probably my favorite of the three.

As with the other Pekar books I’ve read, it’s written in comic book style. But it’s different—and this is why I lean toward saying I prefer it to the other two—in that instead of being a collection of previously published strips, it’s all one story.

It’s Pekar’s autobiography covering his childhood and early adulthood, from his birth in 1939 to about the mid-60s when he was early in his first marriage. For that entire portion of his life he lived in Cleveland, except for two or three brief exceptions—the longest of which was when he hitchhiked to New York and lived there for a few months.

I found it interesting from start to finish. I just like his style. He’s self-deprecating and self-critical, and is inclined toward psychological analysis of himself and those he encounters. There’s humor to it certainly, but what’s appealing is his intellect and his willingness to present himself honestly even when he knows he’ll look bad.

His parents were Polish Jews who had only briefly been in the country before his birth, and mostly retained their Old World ways. One gets the impression they were hard for him to get close to. They worked all day every day (they owned a mom-and-pop grocery store), they had little understanding of the reality Pekar dealt with growing up in America in an urban working class neighborhood and seemingly little desire to rectify their lack of understanding, and they—especially the father—had a kind of distant, cold style to them.

Pekar showed intellectual promise from the beginning, but he seems to have been very reluctant to see himself that way. He was into sports for a while. He worked odd jobs from a young age. He just wasn’t the kind of kid who focuses primarily on his studies and who is clearly going to go on to college and enter a career where he makes a lot of money without getting his hands dirty.

One of his main interests and hobbies as a kid was street fighting. He became quite good at it. He doesn’t present himself as a bully per se, but more someone who put himself into positions where a fight would be likely between him and someone with an overrated reputation as a tough guy that he was confident he could take. Most of his fights he either initiated, or he jumped in after fairly minimal provocation from the other party, and evidently he won just about all his fights (excluding some early ones when he was ganged up on by multiple opponents).

Given his intellect, and given his Jewish parents’ emphasis on education and constant pressure on him to excel, it’s odd to me that he seemed to assume from early on that he was destined for nothing higher than a working class life. Then when he did break out and use his mind more, it was not for the purpose of pursuing conventional success of a kind his parents could have appreciated.

Instead he did things like write unpaid and minimally paid jazz reviews for national publications as early as age 19. He hung around with beatniks, sharing poetry and arguing politics. Much later of course he wrote comic books that cost more to produce than he was able to recoup. So not exactly the kind of intellectual activity one can cash in on.

It seems that as intelligent as he was, and as much as he enjoyed ideas and interacting with other intelligent people, he never saw himself as a college professor, journalist, boss, etc., just a working stiff who’d try to satisfy his deeper needs in his spare time.

His explanation for why he didn’t make more of himself in those years—and pretty much the theme of the book and the basis of the title—is that he was so insecure, and so afraid of failure but sure he was going to fail, that he quit everything as soon as it got difficult, before he could fully fail.

He joined the military and lasted a week or two before suffering panic attacks and getting discharged. He quit his football team in high school due to personal conflicts with his coach. When he did eventually try college—where he did quite well for a while—he quit when he got a C+ in a class he thought he’d ace, reasoning that if that could happen in a class like that, he’d flunk outright any more challenging classes he might have to take down the road. He quit most jobs he had, or lost interest in them and screwed up enough that he was fired.

You can certainly find some parallels with my life. I too have mostly sought intellectual stimulation, the chance to exercise creativity, and personal satisfaction in my non-work life, because any attempt I’ve made to get those things through work has been a failure or very partial success.

For the most part I don’t think of myself as a quitter, though some people who know me do. But I’ve walked away from numerous things in my life that may have seemed promising to someone looking in from the outside, mostly due to ethical concerns, how it was impinging on my autonomy, how it was requiring and encouraging me to change the kind of person I am, or in some cases just because I saw from close up that the opportunity was illusory and unlikely to get me anywhere no matter how long I stuck with it.

Some things I stuck with quite a long time. Others I may not have pursued all that long, but I feel I gave a more than respectable effort. There’s really not that much that I can look back on and say I screwed up by giving up too quickly.

But again, there are those who see me very differently. They see me sort of like how I describe myself seeing Pekar; a high intellect and lots of other tools that it just vaguely seems like could have somehow or other translated into a more conventionally successful, less struggle-filled life.

The young Pekar has less confidence in certain areas than me, and is much more apt to suffer paralyzing anxiety. And obviously the vast majority of the specifics are different—I wasn’t a working class Jewish youth with a penchant for street fighting.

I see him as a kindred spirit in some respects, though we differ in more ways than we’re similar. But clearly I recognize enough of me in him—or maybe I’m responding to certain things that are somehow universally human—that I easily feel empathy for him and his plight, even though there are plenty of unappealing things about him, many disrespectful, borderline thuggish qualities.

At the end of the book, Pekar notes that he’s still highly insecure, and that he still is anxious to the point sometimes of panic about running out of money in the future and being unable to support himself and his family in his old age. So while he’s able to identify these things about himself, and he’s able to trace them back to his childhood, what he’s not able to do is change them, though perhaps explaining them and understanding them helps him to better cope with them.

I’m glad to be finally exploring Pekar’s work after all these years of vaguely intending to. All of what I’ve read of his stuff so far is at least pretty good, with The Quitter being a tad above that.

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