My great contemporary, friend of the world, Harvey Pekar died yesterday. He went to bed early on Sunday and his wife Joyce Brabner found him early Monday morning.
There is an ok obituary from the Los Angeles Times and there will be more. A formidable jazz critic and collector, for seventeen years he wrote an annual ethnographic comic from his job as a file clerk at the Cleveland Veterans Administration hospital. Subsequently he wrote a book with Joyce about his chemotherapy, one about his childhood, another about peace in Macedonia, and endless one-page tributes to musicians who had not yet received their due.
A Hollywood feature film about his life was well received and made him very happy, but it got the one most important thing about Harvey exactly wrong. It was a movie, so he had to be the hero of his own life, the bourgeois ideal. His every breath and act tilted against that windmill. His work at the VA and his depiction of it was a refuge from his self, allowing him to see the heroism of anyone who manages to get to work in the morning. He wrote about Macedonia because it is an unimportant place where people, unheralded, have implemented peace.
He is for me the great writer of the impact of the Viet Nam war in the United States because he notices it but does not foreground it. Writing about Viet Nam here is like writing about Ho Chi Minh, to do it seriously you have to lend the topic much more importance than it had. The essence of the American involvement is that it was a triviality that came to distort our entire society. Harvey, on his rounds getting files for the sick men, the actual soldiers of all our wars, captures the odd moments in elevators when we do talk about them.
He treated Hitler and Stalin the same way, catching the interactions of the men and women of Cleveland, citizens of the twentieth century, as in my native New Haven. It was a deliberate contrast to Art Spiegelman’s approach in Maus, foregrounding the Jews and complaining about his father. If all Hitler wanted to do was kill Jews, we would have let him. Harvey showed how the people remember it, how it all really went down. He did focus once directly on the Viet Nam war, in a four-volume debrief of a veteran colleague, Unsung Hero, on the short list of African American war stories. Joyce wrote a book about Cambodian immigrants. But the stuff to read is (From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes:) American Splendor, in the collected books if you must, but best of all in the original comic books.
I first talked with Harvey about age 25 from a literary office as I explained to him that his work was the best stuff I had ever read but no way could I get middle class officials to back it. I am so glad others found a way for him to get over, twenty years later. About that time, Harvey showed my brother Tim and I around his VA, and I treasure a photo of me in full fan glory staring at the artist as he raved while we dickered over first editions. We weren’t friends, but he wrote my life before I lived it, what it is to be American and know where Viet Nam is.
Which is of course not the same for everyone. I share with Harvey an old-time, Popular Front view of immigration which often differs from university discussion of identity, diversity, and multiculturalism. I recommend his work to your attention.
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