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!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • 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.