Writer Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame, narrates a gloomy but realistic memoir, depicting scenes of his coming-of-age, the son of Polish Jew grocers, in the racially-charged, post-World War II climate of Cleveland, Ohio. Dean Haspiel provides expert illustrations to the scenes of alienation and drudgery which characterized the young Pekar’s rough search for identity and purpose. In his characteristic slightly depressed, tell-it-like-it-is tone, Pekar chronicles a series of early adult failures including his dropping out of high school sports, receiving a hasty discharge from the Navy, quitting college, and being fired from several menial jobs. Interspersed through these episodes, an older Pekar appears to deliver the sobering news that it don’t get any better from here, kid. As average Joes, many of us must often settle for what we can get and hope for the best: survive and keep trying to create something worthwhile.
I won’t say this graphic memoir brightened my day or lightened my mood. I will say it offered some hard and important truths we tend to ignore. In American society, anyway, an extreme focus on heroism and an innumerable number of unobtainable ideals often leave many adults, old and young, anxious about how they can ever measure up. So much effort goes into cultivating the idea that we should all be winners that our society tends to ignore the value of failing or, even, quitting. Beneath a seemingly resigned exterior, this book calls for recognition that failure creates opportunities for growth and the potential to learn. These experiences can help us determine what we are and what we are not; they help us set goals for who and what we want to be. Though the story ends in ambivalence, with Pekar still anxious about his level of artistic acceptance and financial circumstances, it’s clear he has done the important thing: survived in the world.
The book’s themes will likely appeal most to high school-aged young men; but, I think we can all benefit from the book’s main message: we need not be so fearful of failing and, if need, be, knowing when to quit every now and again.