Harvey Pekar’s ongoing cold war against himself and a world that abides such an infuriating creature turns hot in his gripping new coming-of-age graphic novel, The Quitter.
Pekar, the cantankerous retired V.A. hospital file clerk best known for his pioneering, autobiographical comic book series “American Splendor” and the award-winning film of the same name, this time turns his obsessive attention and compulsive honesty on his own origin tale: an account of his neurotic and unexpectedly violent upbringing in the ’40s and ’50s as the child of Jewish-Polish immigrants on the mean streets of Cleveland.
Making confident use of the graphic novel format — the comic book-derived, adult-oriented, long form medium he helped develop over the last thirty years — Pekar weaves together brisk narrative, compelling storytelling, and penetrating, almost clinical, psychological observation into a sophisticated, satisfying whole. Artist Dean Haspiel deftly conjures into visual form the writer’s scenarios and provides an additional, independent layer of commentary on the Pekar persona in a vivid, detailed style that beautifully synthesizes caricature, realism, and lurid comic-type action.
The book’s opening is a telling example of the format’s possibilities. An illustration of the contemporary Pekar shambles wordlessly across frame one, stops and turns away from us in frame two, ponders pensively in frame three, then in frame four, dressed in his traditional checked work shirt, faces the reader with his right hand jammed into his pocket, his left hand outstretched — at once plaintive and matter-of-fact — and says (in bubble caption), “I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on October 8, 1939, five weeks after the World War II started. [new bubble] For what that’s worth to anyone.”
In just four images and a few words we know much about Pekar and the tale ahead: he has a lot on his mind, he is (with some reluctance) going to tell us about it, he is well aware of the possibility that we may not give a fig, and he — an aging, ethnic, urban Midwest, blue-collar type — is going back to the beginning, HIS beginning, and we can follow along if we like.
Pekar’s parents, who were born in “shtetles around Bialystok, Poland,” owned and operated a small neighborhood grocery store on Kinsman Ave in the Mt. Pleasant section of Cleveland, a neighborhood in transition from working class Jewish-Italian to working class black. By 1946, Pekar writes, he was “about the only white kid” his age living on the street. The black kids called him “white cracker” and “it seemed that every day” he had to “fight through a bunch of them.” He had no friends and already felt “totally alienated.”
When he complained, his mother, a Daily Worker-subscribing communist sympathizer, told him that blacks and Jews, persecuted minorities both, had to stick together. The only “sticking together” young “Herschel” (his Yiddish name) saw was them against him. Pekar’s father was too busy running the store to help his son with social issues, social issues incomprehensible to a man whose point of reference, according to his son, never really left the shtetl.
Young Pekar attended Hebrew school, which he “hated,” four evenings a week “for years” until his bar mitzvah, which was the only day of his life — he notes wistfully — his father openly gave him approval. “It was so strange,” writes Pekar. “He felt so proud of me, so close to me, for that small amount of time in the synagogue, and then boom, we went our separate ways.”
As the family moves to a Jewish-Italian neighborhood just within Shaker Heights, Pekar’s hopes raise for an improved social life, but while he did not face “overt hostility” as he had in the old neighborhood, neither does he make friends. “The new neighborhood acted as if I didn’t exist,” he fumes.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Thug
Finally, the boiling cauldron of hopes, fears and frustration that is Pekar can no longer be contained. In the middle of a heated argument with one of the neighborhood boys, Pekar and the boy begin to fight – to his surprise, Pekar wins the fight “with ease.” He has an epiphany: even though he had never “won” fights back in the old neighborhood, he had become an effective, even impressive fighter slugging his way, day after day, through the thicket of black kids amassed against him. He likes the feeling of being the toughest kid around, loves the self-assurance he feels surging through his veins as the crowds cheer and another challenger falls bloodied to the concrete.
But this book is called The Quitter. Pekar’s new found physical self-assurance leads him to excel in sports — first baseball, then football — but he eventually quits both when he can’t live up to his own obsession with being the best – and not just being the best, but also being recognized by all others around him as such. This restless and self-defeating litany of obsession and rejection acts itself out throughout the rest of Pekar’s formative years, the years that make up this fascinating story, affecting his academic career, jobs, social and internal lives.
The story does not have a happy ending per se — there is no “cure” for the man’s ills, which linger to this day — but over the long haul we can see, even if he can’t, blessed hard-won progress leading to the very real achievement of his writing, a craft he has pursued assiduously now for over 30 years. Pekar is no quitter.
A much more keenly edited version of this review appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
My review of Pekar’s American Splendor: Our Movie Year is here.