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.
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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.


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