Another Dollar, by Harvey Pekar

Another Dollar

When I was in grade school, probably about seven, I remember the TV book in the Sunday paper ran some kind of mock primetime schedule for April Fool’s Day. The descriptions of the episodes of the various shows all had to do with extremely mundane “action,” along the lines of “Goober changes a light bulb,” and “While cooking, Uncle French gets a stain on his shirt.”

If I remember correctly, at first I didn’t get the joke. I think my mother had to explain to me that episodes like these couldn’t be real because they would be too boring. I said that anything could lead to odd or funny consequences, like maybe the idea is that Goober has some adventure at the store where he goes to buy a new light bulb, but she said, no, in that case the description would include that, like, “Goober runs into his old high school girlfriend at the general store and decides to try to win her back.” But since it just says he changes a light bulb, you know it’s too silly to be an actual episode.

Harvey Pekar’s stuff is often on the level of those fake TV show episodes. A lot of his stories that start with some kind of mundane activity don’t ever get beyond that. They aren’t about something crazy that ensued from a mundane activity. They aren’t about some important life lesson that can be learned from a mundane activity. They really are just descriptions of mundane activities that don’t go anywhere.

I felt that more reading Another Dollar than any of the several other Pekar books I’ve read. I can imagine many people picking up a book like this, reading a few pages, and concluding that the whole thing is a put-on. At least when he wrote about having cancer, or making a movie, or what shaped him in his childhood, the subject matter went beyond the ordinary and there was some effort to get a little deeper.

But no, here the vast majority of the stories really are on the level of changing a light bulb or getting a stain on your shirt.

Furthermore, while the bitter kvetch persona he adopted for the Letterman show was always exaggerated, at least back then there was a genuine edge to him, a tendency toward cynicism and finding things to criticize about people and situations. By the time he wrote the comics in this book, he was a mellow old guy who as often as not put a positive spin on the things he experienced.

I could see writing a diary or something where I record even the minutiae of my life, but as self-indulgent as I am, as much as I’m apt to personalize my writings (like these book and movie essays), and as much as I like trying to draw people in to care about what goes on in my life and what I think about it, I can’t see even me going as far as writing a book like this.

I guess nowadays people do things like that on Facebook (“Went to K-Mart to buy socks. Was worried about the traffic, but I was able to get there and back in plenty of time for dinner,” etc.), but that’s understood to be quite silly behavior, and they only subject their Facebook “friends” to their pointless narratives. It’s not something they stick between covers with a few other such “stories” and release to the public.

I know it sounds like I’m trashing the book, and maybe Pekar’s work in general, but that’s not what I want to do. I stand by everything I’ve said so far (one of the blurbs on the back cover says “Pekar makes mundane reality seem like the highest drama,” to which I would reply, “Nope. In this book especially he presents mundane reality as rarely more than mundane”), but I admit there’s a strange fascination about this material that kept me turning the pages, and made me wish there were more when I finished the book (in less than an hour).

It’s like an Andy Warhol thing, like that movie he made of a guy sleeping. You almost have to admire it in some odd, ironic way because Pekar is so principled about not making things interesting, not embellishing them.

In real life it’s more the exception than the rule that your mundane daily activities develop into something more than mundane, or that they give you an opportunity to gain some interesting insight into yourself, the people you interact with, human nature, or whatever. It’s like Pekar is refusing to deny that. He’ll bring you into his life if you want, but don’t expect it to be full of interesting or educational anecdotes, any more than the life of any other ordinary person, because this is reality, not a phony sitcom version of reality.

And I like that at some level. I like that he has the guts to write about going to the barber and enjoying the conversation, and to put it out there to the public as if anyone should care. And I like that he actually pulls it off, that plenty of people do read it, and do care.

He’s a strangely likable guy, and his material—which should be painfully boring—is strangely likable too.

But on the whole, even though I do find Another Dollar a little appealing in its unconventional willingness to embrace the mundane, I’d rank it behind Pekar’s books that have more meat to them, like Our Cancer Year, or The Quitter about his childhood.

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