I just discovered from a link that Dennis Perrin posted to Doug Henwood’s mailing list that Harvey Pekar is dead.
The article is worth reading in its entirety for people who were fans of Harvey, like me, and anybody else who wants to learn about one of America’s great literary talents. I first heard about him in a May 11, 1986 NY Times Sunday book review of a collection of his comic book stories titled “American Splendor” (I should mention that Harvey preferred the term comic book to the pretentious graphic novel term used for works like “Persepolis” and “V for Vendetta”):
Mr. Pekar’s work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoyevsky’s, and it is easy to see why. His stories, as he puts it, are about “the cosmic and the ordinary,” about the working stiff’s search for love and transcendence, the bleak reality of life in a hard town and the reflections of a volatile, passionate sensibility that vibrates with everything around it.
That was the first book of his that I read, joined eventually by a host of others, including what might be his last published book: “The Unrepentant Marxist”. Here’s the story on how that project came to be.
In 2008, I got a call from my old friend Paul Buhle, who had become Harvey’s writing partner on a number of comic book projects including ones about the beat generation and SDS. He was in town with Harvey to meet with their publisher and asked if I could put him up. Sure, I said. As a huge fan of his work, I was anxious to meet him.
Harvey is not much of a talker–at least he wasn’t that night up at my place. He had a tendency to interject “ya knows” into just about every sentence and seemed a bit out of it. So, to pass the time I began telling him about my past. Growing up in the Catskill Mountains resort area when people like Sid Caesar were coming up. Living above the Kentucky Club and hanging out with Jewish boxing legend Barney Ross, a greeter at the club, on the sidewalk where he would show me how to put up my dukes. Joining the SWP and going to Houston where I had a relationship with a woman comrade who had just quit her job as an exotic dancer. Dropping out of the SWP after a Chaplinesque stint as a spot welder. And all the rest.
At some point, the conversation turned to his own work and I told him how much I appreciated the story about his father denigrating Harvey’s beloved jazz collection and telling him how superior Jewish cantorial music was. As it turns out, I love both jazz and cantorial music and invited him to listen to a few minutes of one of my favorite records that featured old-time greats like Yossele Rosenblatt. Here’s Rosenblatt singing a prayer for the dead, appropriate for the topic at hand:
About a month later, Harvey called me from Cleveland and asked me if I’d like to work on a book about my life. Sure, I said. I spent about six weeks putting together some material that he and the very gifted artist Summer McClinton turned into a book—the final page appears below.
I haven’t talked to Harvey since early 2009, but assumed that the book would eventually come out. He had a two-book contract with Random House and they have obligations to his widow and to Summer. But there is the possibility that they might just pay them off and let the book die in their vaults. Who knows? According to Paul Buhle and Summer, there is a strong possibility that his death might ensure its release since there is always a market for the remaining works of authors who have died, Chile’s Roberto Bolaño being a prime example.
Speaking on my own behalf, I would say that “Unrepentant Marxist” is a terrific book largely due to the incredible work done by artist Summer McClinton. The book is written in a kind of Jewish stand-up comedian style with lots of political observations familiar to anybody who reads this blog, including my evolution since 1981 after coming into contact with Peter Camejo, who is a major presence in the book. Ironically, I had plans to send Harvey a copy of Peter’s memoir in the next day or so. I should add that one of the last times I heard from Harvey was the day that Peter’s obit appeared in the NY Times.
I have no idea what is going to happen with this book but—believe me—I will not rest until it can be read by the public. I don’t have much use for publishing houses, or any other capitalist firm for that matter, and will make sure to remind them that this book was important to Harvey Pekar, one of the outstanding dissident voices of our era.