Last week and early this week, I had the opportunity to read two trade paperbacks in one book: American Splendor and More American Splendor. Perhaps it is best if I start from the beginning.
A few weeks ago, I happened to watch the movie version of American Splendor, which is an autobiographical comic about Harvey Pekar. You see, Harvey is a guy. He’s a creative guy, intellectual, and at times misanthropic. I’ve seen him appear on Anthony Bourdain’s program No Reservations when Tony decided to brave the streets of Cleveland in order to find food and merriment. Long and short, Harvey was a compelling person. His appearance on No Reservations provided me with the impetus to watch American Splendor and subsequently read the comic.
AS is a collection of short subject comics that focus on the life and times of Harvey Pekar. The stories vary wildly, but each has elements of comedy and drama that are well handled by the author. “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines” is as much social commentary as it is comedy, and it ultimately teaches that stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, but you can still be surprised.
“I’ll be Forty-three on Friday (How I’m Living Now)” is an entrancing narrative that explores Harvey’s mindset at the end of his 42nd year and start of his 43rd. This story is the one I would like to focus on for now, because it is the one that touched me the most.
It starts with Harvey expounding on aging; how some folks obsess about it, and how he doesn’t. He doesn’t because he doesn’t really feel like his aging. He says that his life isn’t neatly divided into stages like some people’s: typical folks get married, buy a house, raise a family, have grandkids. Harvey’s been married, but that’s about it. He goes on to say that he’s pretty much living the same way he did 23 years ago. Heck: he even wears the same size clothes he did two decades prior. All in all, it makes his life feel more cyclical.
Here is the first point that Harvey and I are similar (at least at this point in Harvey’s life). I don’t feel particularly like I’m 31 years old. Because of my general lack of responsibility, I don’t feel like I’m grown-up. My life is a 3-11 job keeping track of inventory, writing stories, and enjoying time with my wife. Harvey’s job is as a file clerk, he writes stories, and he’d like to enjoy time with a woman, but his wife and he just split-up.
That’s one point for me :).
Harvey ponders happiness. He had thought that happiness was something that would always ellude him; however, he finds happiness in being in love with his wife, having a creative outlet, living in a nice neighborhood, and having a place to live. It is all about perspective, which is something I’ve been applying to my life. I’ve come to the realization that, unless I apply myself more, this is the ultimate stage of my life. Things won’t get better, probably just worse if I’m not lucky. I have the tools for my happiness, and I can either build a house with ’em or sell ’em for dinner.
Anyways, Harvey goes on to think about friends. He explores his own feelings of inadequacy (feelings which I have about myself) and then broadens his scope to explore how those feelings have moulded his relationships and expectations. At one point, he basically says that he’s tired of trying to be friends with people that don’t want to be friends with him. He no longer feels compelled to seek the friendship of people that don’t understand him, don’t accept him, and ultimately bore him anyway.
As I’ve been feeling increasingly isolated lately, I can understand Harvey. There are people that want you there for them, but don’t particularly care to be there for you. Then, there are people that just don’t challenge or compell you; they’re too vapid or too ensconced in their world view to interest you. I’m not thinking of anyone in particular, but I know that there are times that I’ve wondered, “Why am I trying so hard to be their friend?”
Anyways, back to Harvey. By this point, he is contemplating the future. He is increasingly friendless, often perferring books and learning to people. And then he wonders what will happen when he’s old and weakening.
Recently, I listened to an interview with John Waters where he was talking about life without children. He was saying how you needed to rely a lot more on your friends as you got older, and as such, had to make younger friends constantly. Part of this is to assure that someone will care for you, and another part is to assure that you’ll have a crowded funeral. Harvey, aging and without many friends, stares at old age resolutely. He’s doing the best he can do.
Very existential, no? At one point earlier in the story, he talks about the dichotomy of day-to-day life: how the little things that we do in life will hardly affect the world in a century, but how important these same things are to our lives when they are immediate. This has been something that has fascinated me; sometimes, I get into the mindset where I ponder how insignificant my life is in the grand scheme of the universe and then, swiftly, everything I do loses meaning.
When I die, my life’s work will stagger around for a while. But, soon enough, Just like a thousand other authors, it’ll fade away. I’m good. There’s no denying that my stories are compelling. However, I have a hard time believing that they’ll last more than fifty years after I go.
This mindset is a dangerous one, one which I typically abandon for appreciating each day on its own merits and doing the best that I can. Sometimes, the best you can do is all you can do.
In the end of things, I feel like I’m doing Harvey a disservice by making this review so much about me, but that is a huge part of what this book did: it created a dialogue between Harvey and I through the book. He told his stories, and they caused me to think about my own life and work. I highly suggest picking up a few of these stories and giving them a go.