Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Here's one last conversation with Harvey Pekar, one last chance to spend the afternoon again with one of the unlikeliest literary figures of recent times. I was glad of the chance. Pekar's last collaborator, J. T. Waldman would seem to have gotten a little grief for having made this book out of what appears to have been but one day tooling around Cleveland with Harvey, talking about Israel. What of it? None of Pekar's collaborations ever struck me as being specially artful or editorially strict; if anything, the weird fascination of Pekar has always been the careful avoidance, in both his person and his art, of seemingly any affect at all. What is it he's kept from his readers heretofore, or spared us? How many days considerably less crowded have his readers not already spent listening to Pekar talk, or think, or just sit? As for the suggestion that this last conversation is somehow uncharacteristic of the man, that's just nonsense. Pekar is a child of Montaigne; nothing he did did he not find interesting enough to consider, and at length, in public, with friends. Why not? Harvey Pekar was an interesting man. Harvey Pekar, I feel perfectly safe in saying was also a bit of a bore.
Here we have a rather gentle, even fragile Harvey; avoiding the stairs, glad of a ride. He's still irascible, he still snaps now and then, but the bark is more a low growl and there's frankly not much harm left in him. What there was, evidently was still a good deal of unresolved affectation for and or resentment of his long dead parents. Yes, it would have been nice to have had a bit more of them and perhaps less of the the Khazars and less of Suez, but the book we have is now the only book we're going to get, and that means Harvey telling the whole history of the Jews, and by extension the Middle East, in an afternoon, over sandwiches and Cokes in Cleveland. Not my idea of a good time, honestly, so I can't say that I envy the day Waldman got to spend with Pekar, but I'm glad, as I say, of the record Waldman made. Why?
Harvey Pekar is such a rare bird in the last American century as to sometimes seem unique, though he was hardly that. Autodidacts aren't usual to our literature after, say the turn of the last century. (Before that it seems it was the professors who were rare.) Working class intellectuals, unless and until they achieve some kind of celebrity unrelated to their reading and writing -- as "Nixon's favorite philosopher," to name just one unfortunate example in poor Eric Hoffer -- hardly figured otherwise in our discourse. And nowadays? I would be willing to bet, based if nothing else on his occasional guest-spots on the old Letterman show, were a Harvey to happen again, he would probably be swallowed up immediately in some reality TV... mess that would exploit his mental difficulties, his eccentricities and his mood, just as Letterman once did, for laughs, without actually paying much mind to anything he might have had to say. The most remarkable thing about Pekar is that his one truly important idea -- comics written seriously about real life, namely his, happened at exactly the right moment to come true. The result of that good fortune is a remarkable record of a very individual life, otherwise largely unrecorded in our literature, which was exactly Harvey's point.
When, as here, what Harvey had to say was what one may both already know and already have come to a similar conclusion about, is not to diminish both Pekar's right, and need to say it, and the satisfaction to be had from seeing so much plain sense between covers. True, Pekar's is not always a subtle reading of either history or politics, but it is honest, which is a rare thing indeed when it come to not just this subject, but the record of our civic life in general, as lived by those of us with, shall we say, day jobs?
I miss Harvey Pekar.
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