Let’s just say that the Perpetual Misery of Cleveland has been in the news again lately, and acknowledge that no one was better at a) articulating it and b) rising above it than Harvey Pekar.
Comic book icon, brief Hollywood star (via 2003’s American Splendor, coming soon to thousands of Netflix queues near you), thoughtful jazz critic (here he is on free-jazz deity and fellow Cleveland native Albert Ayler), and Voice contributor, Pekar was the living embodiment of that most durable of American archetypes: the Lovable Curmudgeon. He was found dead by his wife, Joyce Brabner, early this morning; an autopsy is pending, though it’s hard not to note — as does the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s excellent, thorough obit — that their signature artistic collaboration was called Our Cancer Year.
Ed Park’s 2003 Voice feature/semi-interview tied to the film gets at how Pekar made his own unappealingness so appealing: “It’s a song of himself he’s performed over the past 27 years, and it’s a self laden with the techniques and inner-directed impulses of the most exacting of modern authors: self-pity and self-loathing, self-criticism and self-reference, self-consciousness above all.” (Here’s Hoberman’s approving review of the flick, which dates the first flower of Pekar’s fame to an early Carola Dibbell Voice article.) Park wonders, as did many people, how he’d deal with the minor fame the movie brought him (Splendor‘s best moments are when the real Pekar shows up to antagonize Paul Giamatti’s “fake” one), but Pekar simply did the only thing he really could do: keep going, keep living, keep writing, keep kvetching. (Roger Ebert points to his last project, an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working.) There’s a flood of work to go back and explore now, but perhaps the simplest introduction to him remains his infamously dour David Letterman appearances, Grouch vs. Grouch. (“I don’t even know you, man!”) It’s an epic curmudgeon battle, but Dave never really stood a chance. “Wait till next year,” Dave advises, bringing up Cleveland’s perpetually lousy baseball team, the Indians. “Yeah, Dave,” Harvey responds, with the most lovable sarcastic sneer imaginable. “Wait till next year.”