Saturday, February 24

Splendid quitter

I picked up Harvey Pekar's confessional, The Quitter, in the public library's "new books" section. The fact that the book was published in 2005 tells you what you need to know about the Palm Beach County library system.

Pekar is best known as the protagonist of the 2003 biographical movie American Splendor, in which he appears as himself and as portrayed by Paul Giamatti. If that sounds confusing, Roger Ebert describes it well here.

Pekar is a graphic novelist who recounts the quotidian details of his life. He bared his life in a series of comics called American Splendor, and in a book called Our Cancer Year, about his treatment for lymphoma. As portrayed in the movie, Pekar has zero drawing ability. He writes, and a hired cartoonist draws. The first issues of American Splendor were drawn by the legendary R.Crumb. The Quitter is illustrated ably by Dean Haspiel.

I was about a quarter of the way through the book when I came across the movie while channel-surfing last night. I had seen it before, twice, but now that I've read Pekar's book, I'm astonished at the way Giamatti poured himself into that role. The back of The Quitter has pictures of Pekar in the 50s and 60s, and Giamatti's resemblance is uncanny.

The Quitter is an unusual type of biography. It's not a memoir -- names and dates and places -- nor is it a full-fledged autobiography, telling the full story of his life. It's narrower than that. Pekar has identified one of the things that he doesn't like about himself -- that he would rather quit than rise to a challenge -- and goes back to his childhood and young adulthood to discover the roots of his character defect. This tight focus allows the story to be told with economy. He tells of how hard he worked to prepare for his bar mitzvah, and how his father was proud of how well Harvey did in the ceremony. "And then, boom, we went our separate ways, with practically no communication between us."

Pekar recounts his disastrous month in the Navy, when he washed out of basic training because he couldn't do laundry.

As Pekar tells it, a pivotal event of his life happened when he got a C-plus on a geography test in college. He was so frustrated at himself that he went home and kicked a chair to splinters, which led to a brawl in the kitchen with his father and cousin. Harvey quit school and moved out. That's when the rest of his life began -- when he quit school and quit his family.