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The Reading Life: Harvey Pekar's Jewish question

July 12, 2012 |  6:25 am

This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

When Harvey Pekar died, two years ago today, at the age of 70, he left behind a contradictory legacy. On the one hand, his "American Splendor" remains one of the most compelling and transformative series in the history of comics: autobiographical slices of life in which Pekar wrestles with his job as a VA file clerk, with his mania for collecting, with the city of Cleveland -- where he was born and where he died -- and perhaps most significantly, with himself.

This is not to say "American Splendor" is self-absorbed, except it is -- in the best and most interesting of ways. When Pekar's on his game, he's like a street corner Samuel Beckett, pondering the absurdity of existence while embracing, in his own curmudgeonly fashion, all the struggles it entails.

I've written before about "Hypothetical Quandary," in which, over the course of three brief pages, he frames a Sunday morning trip to the bakery as an existential meditation, moving from the futility of his own striving and obsession to the sustaining, if fleeting, aroma of fresh bread. As with many of Pekar's stories, almost nothing happens, and yet something important is resolved.

For all that, Pekar spent the last few years of his career focusing on a different sort of story: piece work ranging from graphic histories of the Beats and Students for a Democratic Society to a comics adaptation of Studs Terkel's "Working." I can't say I blame him; he was always short of money, and after a lifetime as a cult hero, the 2003 film adaptation of "American Splendor" opened up a lot of opportunities. At the same time, there's something flat about such efforts, as if Pekar were going through the motions.

Both of these conflicting impulses -- that of the engaged autobiographer and of the freelancer fulfilling an assignment -- emerge in Pekar's final graphic memoir, "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me." It's an interesting book, if a bit schizophrenic, melding Pekar's lifelong internal debate about his Jewishness and more specifically the state of Israel, with a capsule history of the Jews.

Collaborating with artist JT Waldman, Pekar does his best to keep the narratives distinct, relying on a kind of comic-book realism for the personal material (much like "American Splendor") and going more stylized for the history. Holding it all together is a terrific conceit: Pekar and Waldman spend a day together, first at Cleveland's large antiquarian bookstore Zubal Books, then in the car and finally at the Cleveland Public Library, where they plumb the archives, debate politics and generally discuss the shape of the book (this book) that they're working on.

If that sounds a little meta, it is, although in a refreshingly down-to-earth way. What better strategy for framing the tension between personal and global than by tracing Pekar's own attempts to do so within the context of his life and work? Raised by Zionist parents (one a Marxist, the other a devout Jew), he wrestled with these issues from adolescence, until they became a matter of identity. And yet, Pekar ultimately did not identify with Israel -- at least, not with the nation Israel has become.

"I'm ... tired," he declares, by way of explanation, "of people saying I'm a self-hating Jew because I'm critical of Israel. ... I do not hate myself. And Jews who criticize Israel aren't necessarily mentally ill." It's an excellent point -- one with which, as a Jew, I entirely agree -- and it returns the issue of Jewish sovereignty, of Jewish survival, to the most individual perspective, which is, of course, where Pekar excelled.

Less successful are the historical sections, which trace the saga of Jewish life from Abraham to the present day. Here, Pekar works almost entirely by the numbers, tracing in broad strokes the destruction of the Second Temple, La Conviviencia and the Expulsion, the Holocaust and the creation of Israel. If you don't know all this already, Pekar doesn't tell you very much, and if do, his version is a redundant sketch. It would have been better, I think, to avoid the history altogether and zero in on the personal.

As to why Pekar didn't do this, perhaps he felt such a story required a wider filter. Or maybe all those late-life projects rubbed off on his storytelling style. (Similar problems afflict another posthumous work, "Harvey Pekar's Cleveland," which came out earlier this year.)

Either way, "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me" is ultimately more emblematic of Pekar's bifurcation as an artist that it is of his conflict as a Jew. That's too bad, because his message here is important -- that a good Jew asks tough questions, that a history of oppression requires us to be more conscious of the oppressed.

"Jews oppressing others just to survive seems dicey," Pekar argues in the final pages. "I know that we Jews have been the most viciously persecuted ethnic group to survive. ... But the Palestinian Arabs are not going anywhere. Their ancestors lived on the same land. They still live in Palestine. And as long as they do, they will fight for independence, and there will be ceaseless conflict."

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Harvey Pekar. Credit: HBO Films