The Oh-So-Clevelandish Life of Harvey Pekar

I’m a fan of Harvey Pekar, I really am. I’ve read at least a half dozen of his books. I love American Splendor, really anything with Paul Giamatti in it, for that matter.

Harvey Pekar is kind of a legend in Cleveland, especially in literary circles. I don’t know exactly how many people have actually read his graphic novels. The library recently honored his life by releasing a special Harvey Pekar library card. I know some people who turned theirs in so they could get a Harvey Pekar one.

I don’t think Harvey had too much influence outside of Cleveland and outside of comic circles. Not until American Splendor came out a few years before he died did he really gain a lot of national recognition and I think that was mostly of the cultish variety. He died before I moved here, but my friends used to see him out and about.

I think about him a lot because Harvey Pekar is one of the few artists to achieve greatness and national recognition over the last few decades while actually living in Cleveland. Part of the fascination with him, clearly, is that most people that live in places like Cleveland, eeking out kind of a normal existence, their stories are never really recorded, and certainly not examined. He was an exception in that respect. Someone from a very normal place who was able to rise above his circumstances more or less through creative expression. I think he was a creative success that really deserved it too, which is refreshing.

That’s not what I want to discuss though, what a genius he was. Rather, in a lot of ways, Harvey Pekar was really a product of Cleveland, that sounds trite, I know, but it’s not what you think.

One thing that’s funny about Harvey Pekar, he worked as a file clerk at the VA his whole career. In one of his books — one of the American Splendors — he explains that one of his wives left him because he wouldn’t leave Cleveland. His wife had a Ph.D and she needed to leave the area to find a job. But Harvey refused to go. He says right in the book, very matter of factly, that his VA job as a file clerk — a job he always calls a “good civil service job” — was too good to give up.

Ha! That cracks me up. Here is this creative genius and intellectual and he won’t follow his doctor wife out of the region because he has a civil service job — a steady, reliable government job. That is the most Cleveland, the most rust belt, move ever. In a scary economy, get that government job and cling to it for dear life. That is the Cleveland way. The dream. It’s a pretty freaking sad one, if you ask me, but one that still holds a powerful appeal in this region, especially for older people. And I guess if you have a mortgage and a family and you’re watching your regional economy unravel, it makes a lot of sense.

Then there’s the fact that he actually does stay a file clerk until he finally retires, which is portrayed in a heartwarming scene in American Splendor. The thing that amazes me about this — and again this is just so Clevelandish — is that all those years no one offered him a better job.

The most important artist to come out of Cleveland in a generation arguably, an avant garde intellectual publishing these books that really helped start a new genre, building a following. Case Western never stepped up and offered him position. Nor the library. Of all the schmucks they probably employed over the years, the most brilliant artist of a generation maybe to come out of Cleveland spent 30 full years working as a file clerk at the VA.

It blows my mind. But that was the culture here as well, I think and he was a part of it for better or worse. He was clinging to his VA job, and those Case Western professors were doing the same. Extraordinary creative talent wasn’t really a important factor, or even a consideration that would have entered into the equation. There was no mechanism for recognizing it and exploiting it in Cleveland the way there is in New York.

Perhaps his work wouldn’t have been the same without its trappings of ordinariness. It certainly wouldn’t have been as special. Then again, perhaps he could have achieved much more if he wouldn’t have spent decades of his life filling millions of patient files. It’s hard to say.

What a treasure he was though, how hard he struggled to overcome the circumstances that sort of served to confine his giant spirit. There’s something so relatable and heroic about that.

A.S.

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