Harvey Pekar's Ode to Cleveland

Late Author's Work Is Paean to Hometown

joseph remnant

By Jillian Steinhauer

Published March 07, 2012, issue of March 16, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Remnant’s art helps immensely. Well-researched and subtle, the drawings are cartoons crossed with genre scenes that give life to the statistics and sweeping statements. In one panel, for instance, Pekar mentions increasing racism among Cleveland’s white population. To match, Remnant depicts a factory assembly line, a black man working in the center and white coworkers around him casting quiet, angry looks. The picture makes the racism both conceivable and palpable.

Although he narrates from page one, Pekar really enters in 1939. Again he starts at the beginning, this time his own — his Jewish upbringing by Polish-born parents, the experience of being the only white kid on the block. Fans will recognize some information from previous works, but Pekar’s life here is filtered through a distinctly Clevelandian lens: his favorite childhood spots; the bookstores that fueled his love of reading; a mini-history of Coventry, the neighborhood he lived in for years.

The writing in this part of the book is noticeably stronger, as Pekar gains the space to do what he did best: observe and comment on everyday life. Since the early days of “American Splendor,” Pekar has been known as a master of the quotidian, a man who can derive a philosophical principle from an overheard conversation. Though we get less of that here than we might like — in the attempt to cover a lot of ground, smaller stories end up sacrificed to the larger narrative — when those moments do appear, they dazzle with lucidity and wisdom.

They’re also suffused with sadness. There’s an acute weariness to Pekar’s tale, which ostensibly chronicles the decline of both his hometown and himself. Pekar writes that as early as the late 1950s, “that’s how I viewed Cleveland: rotten. And a few years after that, the city started to decline. So did my luck.” On the first count he seems dead on. The story of Cleveland is the story of America — the faltering of cities across the country, the Midwest especially, as production slipped from their fingers. We care about the history of Cleveland because it is our history, and because, like so much of the past, we must try to learn from it.

But on the second count — that of his own bad luck and decline — he seems myopic. No one can discount the toll that depression took on Pekar’s life, and aging clearly had an impact, too; at one point he discusses losing his insatiable appetite for learning. “Cleveland” has its share of bleak moments, which culminate on the second-to-last page, when Pekar raises his arms before a snowy, indifferent city and exclaims, “I look around, I see homeless people and vacant buildings! GOD, I hope I can keep on eking out the bread!”

Still, upon observing his remarkable writing output, as well as his third and most successful marriage, one inevitably comes to disagree. Pekar’s luck — or fate, or life or whatever you want to call it — didn’t decline; it improved. One senses he knew that all along, even if it was difficult for him to recognize. The book is dotted with moments of resigned optimism, the man forever willing himself toward the positive. This makes it all the more heartbreaking to read: the combination of seeing the effort laid bare and knowing he didn’t make it. “If you’re gonna be alive, you oughtta at least make an effort to feel good,” he writes at one point. All that’s left is to follow his advice.

Jillian Steinhauer is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in such places as The Awl, the New York Observer, Hyperallergic and Guernica Daily.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.