Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Harvey Pekar and his City

I prepared a post about the symbiotic relationship between writers and alcohol.

It’s written. Sites to be linked are listed in my browser’s favorites.

Then, Harvey Pekar died.

Pekar wrote American Splendor. If you don’t know it, Google it. Better yet, borrow a collection from your library.

R. Crumb, another Cleveland comics legend and one of the many artists which with Pekar worked, said, “He’s the soul of Cleveland. He’s passionate and articulate. He’s grim. He’s Jewish. I appreciate the way he embraces all that darkness.”

I’ve already said that Pekar is the closest thing Cleveland has to a laureate. If you hear the words used to describe the man, they could be talking about the city itself.

For example, Crumb called Pekar’s work “so staggeringly mundane it verges on the exotic.”

That’s not an insult to call Pekar or Cleveland “staggeringly mundane.” If there is joy in repetition, then there is beauty and truth in the 99 percent of our life that we don’t bother to tell our friends at the bar after work.

Anthony Bourdain — who featured Pekar on No Reservations when he visited Cleveland — has written the best eulogy I’ve seen for him so far.

He was famed as a “curmudgeon”, a “crank” and a “misanthrope” yet found beauty and heroism where few others even bothered to look. In a post-ironic and post-Seinfeldian universe he was the last romantic--his work sincere, heartfelt, alternately dead serious and wryly affectionate. The last man standing to wonder out loud, “what happened here?” ...

As Joseph Mitchell once owned New York and Zola owned Paris, Harvey Pekar owned not just Cleveland but all those places in the American Heartland where people wake up every day, go to work, do the best they can--and in spite of the vast and overwhelming forces that conspire to disappoint them--go on, try as best as possible to do right by the people around them, to attain that most difficult of ideals: to be “good” people.

And Pekar was the epitome of those “good people.” After the Letterman appearances, after the fame, he still worked as a clerk for a veteran’s hospital until he retired.

Tony Mazur, a local sportswriter and blogger, tweeted, “First it’s LeBron, yesterday it was Harvey Pekar, and today it’s George Steinbrenner Certainly not a good week for (former) Clevelanders.”

I don’t want to make this about LeBron or Steinbrenner. I just want to point out the differences. All three of them are local boys. All of them made good. But only one of them is the quintessential Clevelander.

And being quintessentially Cleveland isn’t always a blessing. Pekar’s art, like our city, thrives on a mixture of optimism and masochism.

Pekar once said, “I wake up every morning in a cold sweat, regardless of how well things went the day before.”

What a Cleveland thing to say. We live in a city in which we expect bad weather and heartbreak from our sports teams.

When we did lose LeBron, (once again, this is not about him) I received a text from my friend that read, “Well, this will keep us busy until the next heartbreak.”

Well, the next heartbreak is on us. We have lost the man who understood us best.

Rest well, Pekar. You’ve earned a bit of peace.

-Jason Lea, JLea@News-Herald.com



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