Like so many people I first became aware of Harvey Pekar through his appearances on TV with David Letterman. Here and there I heard more about his comics, partly from talking with friends who were more familiar with his work. Then in 2003 I saw the American Splendor biopic with Paul Giamatti as Pekar.
Through it all I had a generally favorable view of Pekar as an odd but mostly principled fellow, and a sense that his approach to comics would appeal to me. From the first time I became aware of him I had intentions of eventually exploring his work, but I wasn’t so drawn in by him that it was a priority. And somehow it took decades before I got around to it.
Finally I recently picked up multiple of his books—compilations of his comics.
Though I liked the sound of what Pekar was up to all along (chronicling an “ordinary” life and its mundane events), in a way my later interests brought me even closer to his style. Since 2002 I’ve been making films on an amateur and semi-professional level, and the bulk of them involve precisely allowing non-famous, regular people to tell their stories, and talk about how they became who they are and what they’ve learned from life.
Such personal history filmmaking I think overlaps considerably with Pekar’s autobiographical, realistic comics. As do oral histories like those of Studs Terkel (though Terkel’s work tends to include not only appealing “nobodies” getting a turn at telling their stories, but plenty of interviews with celebrities and other notables), and it’s notable that the one book I’ve had published was just such an oral history.
This Pekar book I chose to read first is a reissue of two earlier collections from 1986 and 1987—American Splendor and More American Splendor—as one book, meant to cash in on the success of the American Splendor movie. (It features Giamatti, not Pekar, on the cover, along with multiple references to the movie.)
I came away from this double anthology with pretty much the same reaction I had to the film—I definitely liked it, I definitely like Pekar, if anything I have a warmer feeling toward it and him the more time passes and the movie/book settles into my memory, and I would recommend it to people, and yet I can’t shake the feeling it’s not quite as good as I expected it to be. Like it’s a solid four out of five stars, but somehow I’d expected—or maybe hoped—I would connect even better with Pekar and it would be at least four and a half stars.
For someone whose impression of him comes primarily from his persona on the Letterman show—which is true of me—the mild surprise of the book is that he’s not as grumpy and curmudgeonly a character as all that. He’s humble, self-deprecating, intelligent, and knowledgeable about books and music. None of that is diametrically opposed to his TV persona—which is why I specified a “mild” surprise only—but I expected someone with a bit more of a cynical edge, someone with an unpleasant exterior that would turn off most people, but with redeeming qualities once you dug a little deeper. Instead, he seems to be a guy who would be easily likable as a friend or co-worker.
On the one hand he’s not quite the “everyman” that he’s billed as, or that you might picture when you think “Cleveland VA file clerk.” But on the other hand, you can find intellectuals, people interested in the arts, people able to make insightful observations, etc. in all walks of life. In my own life I’ve come across numerous people who were decidedly not mediocre in prison, working in restaurants, and gambling full or part time on sports, among other places—not exactly “elite” environments. So maybe Pekar’s as much an everyman as anyone else.
The stories are not in chronological order, and in fact some are flashbacks to earlier in Pekar’s life.
Not as many of the stories are about his work life at the VA as I expected, though plenty are. On average I probably liked those stories slightly better than the others. But really it’s all a good read.
He has a good ear for dialogue. When he reproduces conversations, you get a good sense of what the other people are like. They don’t feel like fictional characters. Not that they should, since they aren’t, but it’s not automatic that when you present a real person it’s going to come across like a real person.
He depicts other people much like he depicts himself—with plenty of flaws and foibles but somehow all the more appealingly human because of them.
Among the more interesting stories to me is a long one about his having to contend with a serious, and mysterious, throat ailment that puzzled every doctor he went to and left him unable or barely able to speak for months—a foreshadowing of his battle with cancer that would become such a big part of his later life.
Pekar’s common sense philosophical observations are on the money more often than not. After a story about who did and didn’t come through for him when he needed help moving, he concludes:
Nuts to the so-called friends a’yers who grin in yer face but ain’t there when you need ’em. People like that are a dime a dozen.
Friendliness is not one of the first things I look for in a friend. The most important things are honesty an’ reliability. Gimme a sour-faced buddy who returns phone calls, shows up when he’s supposed to, an’ pays his debts when they’re due.
This is a tough world, folks. We all need help t’get by. So help yer friends. An’ make sure they help you or know th’ reason why.
I think Harvey would have been a cool guy to know.