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American Splendor

Harvey Pekar did the introduction to my first Iniquity press/Vendetta chapbook, A Portable Winter, back in 1999. Dave Roskos, perhaps the only true publisher and editor I know in the old sense (one hundred percent care about the underground and off the fringe poets, and zero percent bullshit) asked him to do it, and he read some of my stuff, called me up, asked me some questions, and did the intro. I spent an hour on the phone with him, finding out in that time that his wife occasionally hit him, he was getting up at ungodly hours to take his kid to various sports events, and he had cancer. A couple years later, he’d beaten that round of cancer and things were looking up. Harvey liked to kvetch. He was a great kvetcher. I like to kvetch, too. We got along.

The article about his death mentioned he was a champion depicter of the middle class Guy. That was a little off. Harvey was a prol. They should change that to working class. Harvey did ok for himself the last 25 or so years of his life, and is a hero to a large cult following for his American Splendor comics, but he was a clerk in a veteran’s hospital (his real job) for many years, a guy from Cleveland who didn’t have the house in the burbs, who knew the same kind of people I did: working stiffs, and under ground artists who were a thousand years removed from Manhattan, record nuts, guys who worked shit jobs for shit pay but who could tell you every tune on an obscure Mingus album or who could wax brilliant on Jasper Johns or Dave Roskos has published chap books on Harvey’s other interests beyond making comics: jazz, especially the under ground jazz of now well known players like Albert Ayler, and literary movements such as Russian futurism. Harvey also wrote the best, most lucid, most concise book on the history of stream of consciousness I have ever read. What he knew he knew in depth, and without any blather.

If you need to teach a course on post bop jazz, or Russian futurism, or stream of consciousness, get these chap books from Iniquity press/Vendetta books at PO Box 54, Manasquan, NJ. You can Google the web site. Believe me, I enjoyed them. They aren’t just instructive; unbelievably, for small chap books, they are comprehensive–truly well documented historical surveys. They’re the kind of books I keep around, like Ruth Underhill’s Red Man’s Religion, or Paul Fussel’s books on the English stanzas and the American class system. They are books where the author’s ego is no where to be found, and his interest and knowledge of his subject is everywhere evident.

Anyway, I had discovered Harvey’s work as a kid in Elizabeth via a slight interest in R. Crumb. When I saw Harvey’s stories about working as a clerk, collecting records, waiting in endless check out lines where he always seemed to end up behind the old Jewish lady with a hundred coupons, I was excited. I forgot R. Crumb. Here was a guy with the same ability, in American vernacular prose, to make a drab world come alive–the same ability to make magic from the ordinary that Japanese poets showed in haiku. Harvey gave the urban rust belt, and its daily triumphs and frustrations, a reality, a comic, deadpan glamor.

No fiction writers or poets of that time approached. Long before Seinfeld, Harvey Pekar was doing his own small version of Flaubert’s book about nothing.

I talked to Harvey maybe three or four more times via the phone–always good kvetching sessions (a girl had once more dumped me, his wife was “beating” him, etc). When Harvey wrote the intro to A Portable Winter, he had already appeared several times on the David Letterman show and was a cult favorite. He didn’t have to acknowledge me at all. Unlike academic poets who “make” it, he was far from unreachable, and did not get a big head. He continued to publish in truly under ground formats. The movie made on his life and work, American Splendor gave him some financial independence, but Harvey remained in Cleveland, still kept Dave Roskos publishing his chapbooks, and seemed to remain loyal to his obsessions: comics and record collecting. He wrote of my poems: “Joe’s writing is very easy for me to identify with. Like me, he makes his living working forty hours a week, year after year, and resides in a rust belt community. I’ve seen the images he paints, known the people and culture he writes about. Joe’s Elizabeth, New Jersey seems like my Cleveland.” Harvey’s Cleveland seemed like my Elizabeth: gritty, rusted in spots, but fueled by an older sense of American individuality which belies the present corporate sameness. I always thought I’d go to Cleveland and say hello. I had his number and his address. I knew his wife didn’t really beat him. He said, “Sure. Drop by.” I never did. So it goes.