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Remembering Harvey Pekar In All Of His 'Splendor'

Fresh Air remembers the comic book writer with highlights from 2003 and 2005 interviews. Pekar, who died Monday, was the author of the series American Splendor, which captured the angst of a man struggling with the daily ups and downs of life.

44:05

Other segments from the episode on July 16, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 16. 2010: Obituary for Harvey Pekar; Review of the film "Inception."

Transcript

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Remembering Harvey Pekar In All Of His 'Splendor'

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Harvey Pekar, whose comic book series "American Splendor" chronicled his daily
life in Cleveland as a file clerk, died Monday at his home. He was 70.

Pekar wrote about the ordinary: working as a file clerk in Cleveland's VA
hospital, running into annoying friends and strangers on the street, dealing
with the ups and downs of married life and being constantly disgruntled about
how little money he makes.

He published his first "American Splendor" book in 1976. He couldn't draw, so
he collaborated with several illustrators, most notably his old friend R.
Crumb. Though he worked nearly 40 years in the VA hospital, Pekar was also an
avid jazz collector who wrote reviews for several magazines.

He also appeared on "The David Letterman Show" and co-wrote a book-length comic
with his wife, Joyce Brabner, called "Our Cancer Year" about his experience
battling lymphoma.

Pekar's life and work were dramatized in the film "American Splendor," starring
Paul Giamatti as Pekar and Hope Davis as Brabner. The couple first connected
through letters and phone calls when Brabner was a partner in a Delaware comic
book store and a fan of Pekar's work. Here's a scene from the film of one of
those early phone calls.

(Soundbite of film, "American Splendor")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI (Actor): (As Harvey Pekar) So you're married or what?

Ms. HOPE DAVIS (Actor): (As Joyce Brabner): I’m divorced, thank God.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) Look, I think you and I got a lot in common, you
know? How am I going to get you to come visit me in Cleveland?

Ms. DAVIS: (As Joyce) Cleveland?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) Yeah.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Joyce) You think that's a good idea?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) Yeah, it's a great idea. You know, you should meet me
because I'm a great guy. You know, despite the way my comics read, I've got a
lot of redeeming characteristics.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Joyce) I don't know. Where would I stay?

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) I don't know, with me. You know, don't worry. I'm not
going to put no moves on you or anything...

Ms. DAVIS: (As Joyce) I'm not worried about that. Hold on. I just spilled my
chamomile tea all over me.

Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Harvey) Yeah.

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner in 2003, when the film
"American Splendor" was released.

TERRY GROSS, host:

You met Crumb in 1962, when he moved to Philadelphia from – when he moved to
Cleveland from Philadelphia. And he lived around the corner from you, and you
used to go record collecting together. He wrote an introduction to the first
collection of "American Splendor" comics, the first anthologized version.

And I'm going to read something that he said. He said: Harvey was the first
person I ever met who was a genuine hipster. I was very impressed. He was
heavily into modern jazz, had big, crazy, abstract paintings on the wall of his
pad, talked bop lingo, had shelves and shelves of books and records and never
cleaned his apartment. He was seething, intense, burning up, always moving,
pacing, jumping around just like a character out of Kerouac.

What kind of connection did you make with Crumb? I know you shared a passion
for music, for record collecting. But, like, what was it about your
sensibilities that you think really connected?

Mr. HARVEY PEKAR (Comic Book Writer): Well, I liked him very much personally,
I'll say that. He was a real calm, quiet person. I mean, I know he's done some
pretty wild things, but talking to him, you know, had a calming effect on me,
and I guess you could figure if I was like Crumb said I was, I needed some
calming down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: And later on, I can remember discussing my theories about comics
with him, I guess, to what kind of stories you could put in them, or, you know,
I was telling him I thought you could any kind of stories in them or, you know,
things like that. And so for years, these ideas were percolating in my mind
about how to do a different kind of comic book.

In 1972, when Crumb was staying with me at my house, or at my apartment
building, I wrote down some of the stories I had made up, and I did it in
storyboard fashion, with panels and dialogue and captions and directions to the
artist.

And he looked at them, and he said wow, these are fine, you know, like, could I
take some of these home and illustrate them? And I was just totally, you know,
knocked out. I mean, that – Crumb illustrating my stuff would give it instant
credibility, you know, and I was thrilled.

I was very – I've always been very grateful to Crumb for doing that, I mean, if
not for him, I probably would not have gotten into comics at all.

GROSS: When he first drew you, now you're used to all kinds of artists drawing
you, and you're used to actors portraying you, but that first time when he drew
you, when you were not used to it, what did you think of the way he drew you?
And I should mention that I think of all the artist portrayals of you that I've
seen, his portrayals of you are the most kind of, you know, like, neurotic and
worried-looking and ethnic-looking.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, well, I was a neurotic, worried ethnic and still am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: I think he, you know, I was just very impressed. Crumb just never
disappoints me when he illustrates my work, and he sometimes surprises me by
doing things I didn't expect. I mean, like for example, in a story called
"Hypothetical Quandary," and maybe some other stories, too, his work really
knocked me out because this was a straight, serious story, and he – his
illustration was less cartoony and more realistic than it normally was, and it
worked.

It seemed like nothing this guy could do, you know, it seemed like everything
the guy did worked. You know, he was that sharp, that keen.

GROSS: Joyce, you were a reader of "American Splendor" because you met Harvey.

Ms. JOYCE BRABNER: You should ask me about how I looked when I – how I felt
when I was first rendered in the comic.

GROSS: Go ahead, answer that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRABNER: Okay. I did ask that I not be drawn like a comic book female, and
the first artist who drew me...

GROSS: Wait, comic book female meaning, like, big, curvaceous, lots – you know,
big bosom...

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah, basketballs pushed down inside a Spandex leotard, things
like that.

GROSS: The standard R. Crumb female, in other words.

Ms. BRABNER: No, no, no, no, no. Crumb never drew me. The first artist who drew
me drew me as – well, he'd been doing a lot of illustrations for a local strip
joint, for ads or something like that. So I came out looking like a Barbie
doll.

And I'm not even talking about the new, modified Barbie doll, who has had
breast reduction surgery or something like that. I was long-legged, straight-
backed, you know, enormous front. And the weird things was is that I was
blonde.

Harvey and I have the same color hair, and I remember bringing this to the
artist's attention after it was done, and he said oh, my God, you're not
blonde. And that's because in comic books, women are supposed to be voluptuous
and blonde and completely not looking like me.

GROSS: Joyce, when you got married to Harvey, you knew that you would be a
character in his stories because the stories are autobiographical. And so it
changed your life not only because you now had, you know, a partner in life,
you were also in a position where parts of your life together were going to be
described in this comic book.

What was it like for you to suddenly be a part of the comic book that you had
read and to know that things that you said, things that you did might end up in
the story?

Ms. BRABNER: It was sort of incumbent upon me to make sure that our marriage
had a happy ending. I first became really aware of what was going on when,
after about a year or so - people, you know, sent fan mail to Harvey all the
time, and we got letters that said things like: Well, we weren't real sure
about you, you know, in issue nine, but now that we've seen what's going on in
issue 10, you know, it seems like you're here to stay, and you're good for our
man. And so, you know, the marriage was approved of by all these people who
don't know who we are but just read about us in comics.

GROSS: That's kind of weird, isn't it, I mean, to have readers weighing in on
whether you're the right choice?

Ms. BRABNER: Well, it's either people like that or relatives, and Harvey didn't
come with a whole lot of in-laws and relatives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's funny. So you have to please the readers.

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah, and it matters just about as much. You know, we'd see them
and hear from them about as often as you'd hear from, you know, long-distant
aunts and cousins.

GROSS: Harvey, I'd like to ask you a few things about your background, starting
with your parents. And this comes from one of your comics. You wrote about your
family's attitudes toward getting into fights when you were a kid.

You wrote: My family considered physical violence and even sports as
unthinkably barbaric activities fit only for gentiles. So tell me a little bit
about your parents.

Mr. PEKAR: Well, my parents were both from northeastern Poland, from shtetls.
My mother is from a place called Brzeznica(ph), and my father is from place
called Nowy Dwor. And my mother came over to the United States first, in the
1920s. And I don't know, I think maybe partly because she was, like, really
short, you know, she couldn't find a husband. And they sent – she got send back
to Europe again in 1935, and I guess at that time, you know, she was on, you
know, she was supposed to be – or maybe my relatives who were still there were
supposed to be, you know, looking out for her and trying to find her somebody.

And she did come up with my father. My father's – he – as long as I've known
him, my father's been real religious. And my mother was a communist. We were
for Henry Wallace in 1948. But they seemed to have resolved their differences
that way. I know that they...

Ms. BRABNER: They were both short.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, well, you know, my mother wouldn't go to shul on the high
holidays and stuff like that. But they got along. They respected their
differences. I don't know of too many cases that are like that because they
both believed pretty strongly in what they – you know, in my mother's case, in
her politics, and in my father's case, in his religion.

GROSS: I could see both a communist parent and a religious parent would think
that reading comic books was frivolous and something to be discouraged. What
did your parents think of your interest in comic books and music or any other
parts of pop culture?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, they thought – yeah, they thought it was just, yeah, it was
just a waste of time. I mean, and my father tried to be tolerant of jazz,
although I don't think he liked it very much. He collected (foreign language
spoken) records, you know.

GROSS: What kind of records?

Mr. PEKAR: (Foreign language spoken), you know, like cantors, records of
cantors, like Yossele Rosenblatt or Moshe Koussevitsky, or, well, you know,
there used to be a guy who used to sing for the Met that was also a cantor by
the name of Richard Tucker. I don't know if you know about...

GROSS: Right, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, he was – so my father was – actually he was into collecting
these records, too. I wasn't the first record collector in the family.

GROSS: Did you like those cantor records?

Mr. PEKAR: At first, I – they just made me so depressed and sad, I couldn't
take them, but...

GROSS: Why were they depressing?

Mr. PEKAR: That's the way they – have you heard them? You've heard them,
haven't you?

GROSS: Well, I've heard cantors. I'm not sure I've heard the records that
you're talking about.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, but the style is extremely, you know, it's really, you know,
like a melancholy, pained style of singing. And I really like it now. I really
do. But – and I, you know, I collected about, I don't know, maybe 100 or more
cantorial LPs, you know, just to have - so that I could refer to them.

But it's – well, one guy described it as the cantors were men with tears in
their voices.

GROSS: I regret that we're really out of time. So one last question for you
both.

Mr. PEKAR: Oh, okay.

GROSS: How do you, and how do you not, want the movie adaptation of "American
Splendor" to change your lives?

Ms. BRABNER: The big thing about doing the movie is access. It grants Harvey
access to more chances to work. You know, I think at this point, it would be
nice if he wouldn't have to keep proving himself every time he got a gig. So we
like that.

According to form, we're supposed to get divorced as soon as the movie peaks.

GROSS: I mean, because that's what happens when celebrity strikes.

Mr. PEKAR: That's just what happens, exactly. As soon as celebrity strikes, I'm
going to have to run away with, I don't know what, a cameraman or something
like that.

GROSS: Or Harvey gets to run away with a 25-year-old model, right?

Ms. BRABNER: Well, he can't really run.

Mr. PEKAR: Perish the thought.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Harvey, what else do you or do you not want from the movie?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, it's pretty much like Joyce says. I'd like the opportunity to
get more writing jobs, and, you know, like as a matter of fact, every time
somebody will interview me or something like that, well, I'm not going to do
this to you, Terry, but I would ask them if there's anything, you know,
anything at their magazine or anything like that that I could do. Can I write
some jazz criticism for you? Can I write some, you know, literary cricisim for
you?

I'm pretty aggressive and maybe obnoxious about trying to get work. But I
realize that it's really essential that when the, you know, when the dust is
settled from this movie, that I still am, you know, somebody that people want
to work with.

GROSS: Are you willing to risk being obnoxious to get that?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, it comes easy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRABNER: Yeah, I don't think there's any risk involved for the being
obnoxious.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, I can't help myself. What can I do?

GROSS: Well, I regret we're out of time. I really enjoyed talking to you both.

Mr. PEKAR: Thanks.

GROSS: I love the movie, love the comic, and thank you so much for talking with
us.

Mr. PEKAR: Thanks. It's always a pleasure to talk to you, Terry.

DAVIES: Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in
2003. Pekar died Monday at the age of 70. We'll listen to a 2004 commentary by
Harvey Pekar after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're remembering Harvey Pekar, whose "American Splendor" comic books
portrayed his life in Cleveland, where he worked as a file clerk. Pekar also
recorded several commentaries for NPR member station WKSU in Kent, Ohio. Here's
one he did for Valentine's Day, 2004.

Mr. PEKAR: Well, of course, my thoughts on Valentine's Day turn initially to my
wife, Joyce, which is at it should be, but also to two important creatures who
I care a great deal about: my cats, Phoebe(ph) and Phoenix.

Actually, when I married my wife, at age 43, I got her cat Inky, as well. Up to
that time, I'd never had a pet and didn't want one. They were just extra work,
and Inky didn't appear to be my kind of an ideal cat.

Joyce had rescued him from an animal shelter when he was about six months old,
and he'd already developed some antisocial attitudes by then.

He had a mean streak, like he'd come up and start licking my sweaty hand not
out of friendship but because he likes salt. After he'd gotten his fill of
salt, he'd bite me, literally bite the hand that fed him.

And he liked to climb up on top of high things and then jump on me, often
leaping off a bureau and landing with all four feet on my stomach, when I was
in bed.

At first, I considered him a nuisance, but then I started watching him,
noticing how he solved problems like opening doors and getting the food that
was stashed in hard-to-get-at places.

He definitely had cognitive ability. He figured out how to get around
difficulties so unique that his solutions couldn't be attributed to instinct.

As a result of this, I started reading books about animal cognitive powers,
which are far great than is generally recognized. I found out that human beings
aren't the only animals that can reason, play and express warmth.

At that point, I started regarding Inky as more a companion than a pet. He
never did get to be friendly in a cuddly sense, but we developed a sort of
mutual respect.

Once, I remember losing my temper about something he did and tossing him off of
me. He hit a wall and apparently had the wind knocked out of him or something
like that. As he lay on the ground, seemingly unable to catch his breath, I ran
up to him and started petting and apologized to him. After a few seconds, he
gathered himself and walked, not ran, away from me, as if he had contempt for
me for using my superior strength unfairly.

I probably misinterpreted his action in that instance. In all likelihood, he
wasn't physically able to run from him. I was able to normalize our
relationship, although he avoided me for several days, expressing wariness but
not fear.

Inky died at a ripe, old age of natural causes, shortly before I was diagnosed
with cancer. After months of chemo and radiation therapy, I went back to work
only to find that the steroids used in my treatment had cut off the flow of
blood to my right femur, and it was disintegrating, causing me to limp and be
in a lot of pain.

The doctor wanted me to postpone getting a hip replacement for years because it
would eventually wear out. Having just gone through the cancer treatment and
finding out that I'd be having hip pain for some time to come was very
depressing.

Partly to cheer me up, Joyce got us two kittens, and it really helped. They
didn't care how lousy I was feeling. They still played and expressed warmth.

There have been times in my life when I've had to live alone for years at a
time and been very lonely. Having cats probably would have made a difference.
Everyone needs unconditional love, and on Valentine's Day, I appreciate the
affection of my cats.

DAVIES: That was comic book author Harvey Pekar's Valentine's Day commentary
from 2004. Pekar died Monday at the age of 70. We'll hear from a 2005 interview
with Pekar in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

Today we're remembering Harvey Pekar, who died Monday at his home near
Cleveland. He was 70. Pekar was best known for his "American Splendor" comics,
which chronicled his every day life when he was working as a file clerk at a VA
hospital.

After he retired, Pekar wrote a book-length comic about his childhood called
"The Quitter." Terry spoke with Pekar in 2005 when "The Quitter" was published.

GROSS: What really surprised me reading your new book was that you were a
street fighter when you were young. You always struck me as more argumentative
but not as someone who would enjoy a good fistfight. So I don't know, is this
like a more hidden part of your past?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I guess it's hidden if you don't know about it. It's - I
didn't write very much about my early life in previous, you know, issues of
"American Splendor," and so I didn't talk about it. It used to be a big part of
my life. And I didn't used to really enjoy beating up people. What I used to
enjoy was like, you know, the acclaim and stuff.

You know, I was living in a neighborhood where the toughest guy was, you know,
got the most respect and, you know, I wasn't getting a whole lot of respect in
those days. And I didn't used to pick fights but, like if I'd get in an
argument with a guy, you know, and it'd go to a certain point or he started
cursing at me or something, I'd smack him.

GROSS: Well, let's go back to the neighborhood you grew up in. You write that,
you know, when you were growing up your parents were Jewish immigrants from
Poland. You lived in a neighborhood that had become predominately African-
American so you were one of the few white kids in your school and you actually
got beaten up a lot. How did it affect your self image to be beaten up a lot?

Mr. PEKAR: I didn't like it. I mean it didn't - it really messed me up. Every
day when I would come back from school or go to, you know, back to my house for
lunch of something like that during a lunch break, you know, there'd be a bunch
of guys, you know, that would jump me. And I had to, you know, I had to fight
through that kind of scene for, you know, a couple of years. And nobody talked
to me on the street. I was just, you know, completely shunned. And as a result,
I actually started to think of myself as some kind of an inferior and, you
know, you know...

GROSS: Why do you think you were picked on so much? Did it have to do with
being white or being what they considered nerdy? Like what was it do you think?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, it was being, probably it was being white. They used to call
me white cracker. That was my nickname. And so, I would just, you know, be by
myself all the time. And then I'd, you know, I got going when I started
reading, that helped me out a lot. I learned how to read and I would read comic
books and stuff and that helped.

GROSS: Well, I think it was when you were in high school your family moved to a
different neighborhood and this was a predominately white neighborhood.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: And then, instead of being picked on all the time, you know, turned into
a bully. How did that happen?

Mr. PEKAR: I didn't exactly turn into a bully. It's just gradually - I'm pretty
strong for my age. I mean I was pretty strong for my size and my age in those
days and I was a pretty decent athlete. You know, I never got a chance to find
out about this until I moved to this other neighborhood because I, for
instance, when I was fighting I would always be fighting several guys at once
and I never had a chance to participate in sports or anything like that because
I was sort of, you know, just left out of it. Nobody wanted me.

GROSS: So in high school you feel like you didn't exactly turn into a bully,
but now that you were fighting people one on one...

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I would fight.

GROSS: ...instead of one against a group...

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you did well. You won most of your fights. So...

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: ...how did that change how you carried yourself in school and how you
thought of yourself?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I was a lot more confident about myself because, you know, I
bought into this idea that the toughest kid was the most respected kid and I
figured that I, you know, I was the most respected kid. And I noticed that even
though, you know, like, you know, I read a lot and I was kind of scholarly in
some ways, nobody used to give me a hard time about it because they know I, you
know, I would fight back.

GROSS: Your new book is called "The Quitter." What are some of the things you
quit when you were younger?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I quit baseball. I quit football. I quit classes in school
that challenged me to take easier classes. Then after I got out of high school,
I got a bunch of jobs and some of them I quit because I was - I had these, you
know, kind of crazy fears about just being a failure no matter what I did.

Like, for example, in the post office, I worked at the post office and I would
be afraid to - I mean, yeah, I would think I was going to be screwing up if I
bound up, you know, bundles of letters in twine because I thought I was so
mechanically incompetent that I would just, you know, I wouldn't tie them
tightly enough and they would come apart and, you know, the bosses would blame
me for screwing up, you know, so before that could happen I quit. I know it
sounds crazy but, yeah, you know, it was kind of a crazy scene and there wasn't
really much I could do about it.

GROSS: You joined the Navy and you didn't quit that but you were asked to
leave.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah, I was asked to leave because I again, you know, with the
mechanical stuff. I couldn't pass inspections. I just got all hung up about
the, you know, about washing my own clothes. And I couldn't tell whether my
clothes were dirty or clean and I would be standing there at the, you know, at
the sink scrubbing my clothes when everybody else was through and I wouldn't
know whether they were clean or dirty.

GROSS: GROSS: You were told that you didn't have the flexibility for Navy life.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. That was officially, you know, what they said. Well, I guess I
didn't. Not that I really loved the Navy that much. But I was just looking for
a place to land, a place that I could survive, you know, some kind of job,
something. After a while I set my sights really low. You know, I just wanted to
find something that was easy and paid me enough to, so I could just barely get
by and something that was steady. And, you know, finally I found that in the
civil service working for the VA hospital.

GROSS: As a file clerk.

Mr. PEKAR: That's right. I was a - actually, I have a total of 37 years in with
the federal government as a file clerk.

GROSS: And you did that until your retirement. And here's something I find real
interesting, you're is called "The Quitter," as a young man and as a high
school student you quit all kinds of things, but you've also had incredible
stick-to-itiveness. I mean you stayed at this one job for what, 37 years. You
started doing comics when you were what, in your 20's?

Mr. PEKAR: Thirties.

GROSS: Thirties.

Mr. PEKAR: Thirty-two.

GROSS: But, 32. Okay and you're about 65 now and you're still doing them.

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah.

GROSS: And you've done them and you're now like pretty well-known for them.
You've been married how many years?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, this last time I've been married for 22 years.

GROSS: That's a pretty long time. And you've been in your house how long?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: I've been in my house about 15 years.

GROSS: Yeah, that's a pretty long time too. So how do you kind of reconcile the
part of you that's a quitter with the part of you that kind of finds something
and just stays with it?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, when I find something I can handle, you know, that doesn't,
you know, mess me up or anything like that I stick to it. I hold on to it with
a death grip, like my civil service job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEKAR: God, I thought, God I'll never find another job like this again, you
know, it's so ideal for me, you know. It's easy. I don't have to go home and
worry about the work. I just go and, you know, do the work and go home and
think about writing something. And, you know, I had health insurance. And so, I
mean why wouldn't I want to stay with it? I didn't think I possibly could do
any better than that. I thought that was the best I could possibly do and, you
know, maybe I was right.

GROSS: Now what about sticking with "American Splendor," the comic series that
you've been doing for about 30 years or more? Did you, you know, it didn't
start out - I mean it hasn't - until the "American Splendor" movie, it wasn't
and maybe even after that, it hasn't been a very lucrative thing. And the
attention that you've gotten for it came I think kind of slowly. So what kept
you doing it even when you weren't getting a lot of like financial awards or
acclaim or recognition?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I did get some critical notice and that was a big thing to me.
I mean it was a big thing to me to be a writer, and I was like sort of on a
mission with "American Splendor" too. I wanted to try to prove that comics
could do things. I wanted to expand them beyond superheroes and talking animals
and I knew that it was going to take a long time.

But I just started, you know, writing autobiography and about, you know, my
quotidian life. And, you know, because I think everybody's life is interesting
and I just kept on - so I kept on going at it and I developed a small group of
followers that, you know, used to write to me, and I mean it was like I had -
you know, people say get a life. Well, I mean that was part of my life. You
know, it was a social connection. Other than that, I really didn't have too
much. I would just get up and go to work and come home.

DAVIES: Harvey Pekar speaking with Terry Gross in 2005. We'll hear more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Harvey Pekar, who died Monday
at the age of 70. After Pekar retired from his job as a file clerk for the VA
hospital, where he had worked for nearly 40 years, he wrote a memoir about his
childhood called "The Quitter." Terry spoke to him in 2005 when it was
published.

GROSS: Now that you don't have your day job, you're retired from that, you can
spend as much of the day writing as you'd like. I think most writers find it
really hard to write for a good deal of the day. So what's your work schedule
like? You might have dreamed all your life of having that kind of flexibility.
Now that you have it, what's it like to have it?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. It's a very good question, Terry. It would be pretty hard for
me to write, you know, 40 hours a week, you know, eight hours a day to work
that kind of week like I did when I was at the VA. But I need these writing
gigs to get extra income. I'm taking just about any kind of job I can get and
some of the jobs don't pay that much. So I'm finding that I'm spending more and
more time writing, actually and I think that's the way it's going to be if I'm
lucky. If I'm lucky, I'll just be busy and I'll just have to grit my teeth and
write for however long it takes to, you know, to do the job, because I want to,
you know, I have a wife and a kid to support. I want to take care of that.
That's important to me.

GROSS: Did you have to learn how to deal with an unstructured day - a day that
wasn't structured by a 9 to 5 job?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. I did. At first it freaked me out. In fact, you know, I got so
depressed and screwed up I was hospitalized, you know, for major depression.

GROSS: When was this?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, I retired like in October of 2001 and then in November they
shot the movie and, you know, I had a good time going down on to the set and
watching them shooting the movie and stuff. But when it was over, there was no
structure in my life. But when it was over, there was no structure in my life
and think this happens to a lot of guys when they retire. And I just got real
nervous and depressed, and had to be hospitalized for it. And for about a year
and a half I was in and out of the hospital several times, until I just made up
my mind that, first of all, you know, being in the hospital wasn’t going to
help me and I just have to grit my teeth and just do what I had to do or, you
know, die trying or something.

GROSS: How do you think it's affected you life, to have put so much of your
personal life out there? In your comics over the years, you’ve written about,
you know, fights with your wife and, you know, arguments with friends and
workers and insecurities that you have. I mean, it seems that like all kinds of
things that goes through your mind or all kinds of things that you’ve
experienced, for better and for worse, have ended up in your comic over the
years. And your goal in these comic isn't to just present yourself in a
flattering light. It's to try - I think it’s to try to be really honest about
what day to day life is like.

Mr. PEKAR: Right.

GROSS: So how has that affected you to have all of that out there?

Mr. PEKAR: Well, for some reason I mean I don’t mind it if I show myself being
cheap or, you know, being, you know, unreasonable sometimes. You know, at least
I haven't killed anybody. You know, that's not a problem for me. If I did
something really heinous, I guess, maybe I wouldn’t want to write about it.
But, you know, I've continued to write about my life as it is, hoping that
people will identify with, you know, some of the things that I do, some of the
things that I think, and, you know, take maybe even comfort.

Like for example, when my wife and I did this book "Our Cancer Year," I got a -
it didn’t sell very well. I think it's the worse selling of all my, you know,
Squareback books.

GROSS: And this is the journal of when you had cancer.

Mr. PEKAR: Right. About...

GROSS: In comic form.

Mr. PEKAR: Right. It was something like 212 pages about what it was like having
cancer and what it was like for my wife to take care of me. And people have,
ever since then, you know, told me that they really, you know, it was really
important for them to read that book, because, you know, they thought that
maybe they were the only one that was going through this stuff. And I guess
when their experience was universalized, I guess it made it a little easier to
take.

GROSS: You know, when I think about your life I think about somebody who has
this almost like inherently bohemian spirit. You know, somebody whose life is
so caught up in jazz and literature and language, and yet you spend so much of
your life having this really straight nine to five file clerk job. And do you
see that as a paradox of your life? You know, leading this like very straight
life, but at the same time being just, kind of, inherently bohemian at the same
time?

Mr. PEKAR: Yeah. Well, no I mean I just try to live on, you know, on two
different levels. You know, I knew I couldn’t make money at the stuff I liked
doing, so I took a job that was not challenging. And, you know, when it was
slow at work I used to sneak off in a corner and read, as a matter of fact. I
would take books with me, all the time, to work. I could get my work done, you
know, pretty quickly and then I would, you know, like I would sneak off some
place to, you know, to read or write. And, you know, it worked out. I guess if
I'd had a tougher job, maybe I wouldn’t have read so much.

GROSS: Well, Harvey Pekar, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PEKAR: Thanks a lot, Terry.

DAVIES: Harvey Pekar speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2005. Pekar died at
his home Monday at his home near Cleveland. He was 70.

You can find a link to all of Pekar's radio commentaries on our website,
freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new film, "Inception."

This is FRESH AIR.

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'Inception' A Masterpiece? Only In Someone's Dream

(Soundbite of music)

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Director Christopher Nolan's last film, "The Dark Knight," was such a smash hit
that expectations are running high for his new movie, "Inception." It's a sci-
fi thriller about an agent for hire, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, whose
specialty is entering people's minds while they dream and extracting their
secrets.

Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: In Christopher Nolan's "Inception," Leonardo DiCaprio plays
Dom Cobb, whose name sounds like it should evoke something — a colleague
suggests dummkopf, but I don’t think that's the intention. Cobb's specialty is
plunging into peoples' minds while they sleep and extracting corporate secrets.
His new client, a business titan played by Ken Watanabe, wants Cobb not to
steal an idea, but to plant one in a rival's head. That's called inception, and
it's believed, even in this futuristic world, to be impossible.

Frankly, I got hung up on that. Why should inception be harder than extraction?
One character explains, the subject's mind always knows the genesis of an idea,
but that strikes my mind as dead wrong. I'm highly suggestible. I don't always
know where my ideas come from.

But there's one thing I'm sure of: "Inception" doesn't all come from Nolan's
mind. It's a clunky mix-'n'-match of other mind-bending blockbusters like
"Mission: Impossible," "Fantastic Voyage," "Dreamscape," "The Matrix," with
some Freud and Philip K. Dick thrown in. It's not terrible — just lumbering and
humorless and pretentious, with a drag of a hero.

Cobb accepts the job of planting an idea in a man named Fischer, played by
Cillian Murphy, because he longs to see his two little kids in the U.S. and is
forbidden to return on account of a crime to be revealed later, and the new
client can make the legal problems go away.

The best part of the movie is Cobb assembling his team, among them Joseph
Gordon-Levitt as the point man. Ellen Page's architecture student, Ariadne, has
two functions: dream-world designer and exposition magnet. She's the newbie, so
Cobb has to explain how the science works.

It takes a lot of explaining.

Soundbite of movie, "Inception")

Mr. LEONARDO DICAPRIO (Actor): (as Cobb) You create the world of the dream. We
bring the subject into that dream, and they fill it with their subconscious.

Ms. ELLEN PAGE (Actress): (as Ariadne) How can I ever acquire enough detail to
make them think that it’s reality?

Mr. DICAPRIO: (as Cobb) Well, dreams — they feel real when we're in them,
right? It's only when we wake up that we realize something is actually strange.
Let me ask you a question. You never really remember the beginning of a dream,
do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what's going on.

Ms. PAGE: (as Ariadne) I guess, yeah.

Mr. DICAPRIO: (as Cobb) So how did we end up here?

Ms. PAGE: (as Ariadne) Well, we just came from the...

Mr. DICAPRIO: (as Cobb) Think about it, Ariadne. How did you get here? Where
are you right now?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. PAGE: (as Ariadne) Are we dreaming?

Mr. DICAPRIO: (as Cobb) You're actually in the middle of the workshop, right
now, see, and this is your first lesson in shared dreaming.

(Soundbite of explosion)

EDELSTEIN: That's my favorite scene in "Inception," because it ends with the
dream city exploding in puffs of debris and the anticipation of magic to come.
But Nolan thinks like a mechanical engineer. Instead of creating one dream
that's really evocative, he opts for very ordinary looking dreams within-dreams
within-dreams.

See, in a dream, you can fall asleep and have another dream, in which you can
fall asleep and have another dream — except time works differently at different
depths. A minute in the waking world might be 10 minutes in the dream, an hour
in the dream-within-a-dream, and in the dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream,
years.

The gimmick lets Nolan have three clocks ticking down instead of one — which
should be killingly suspenseful. But he's too literal-minded, too caught up in
his tick-tock logistics to make a great, untethered dream movie. The tone is
impersonal, the action disjointed.

There is a nice Freudian touch, a female saboteur who keeps popping up in
Cobb's unconscious - his wife, Mal, played by Marion Cotillard. She has a great
first scene, surveying her malevolent handiwork with glittering eyes. But then
the Mal subplot turns grim. She's the key to what eats away at Cobb, so as the
team prepares to jump into the head of Fischer, Ariadne has to play therapist.
As we go deeper into Fischer, she tells Cobb, we're also going deeper into you.
And I'm not sure we're going to like what we find. Dialogue like that does
nothing for an actress, and it's the only kind that Ellen Page gets.

Apart from Cotillard, the cast is colorless, including DiCaprio, who's often
terrific but is weighing himself down with guilt-trip roles.

Look, I, too, wanted to surrender to "Inception". But even with some amazing
effects — like a city that folds over on top of itself — it never cuts loose
the way "The Matrix" or Joseph Ruben's jolly B-movie "Dreamscape" did. If
you're hoping for a thriller that will take you into another realm, well dream
on.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(Soundbite of music)

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of music)

On the next FRESH AIR: taming the sea. Almost half of the fish we eat has been
raised on farms and genetic modification of fish is increasing. We'll talk to
Paul Greenberg, author of "Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food."

Join us.

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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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