“I have a job.” That just about sums up American Splendor for me, and it pretty well explains why I and probably millions of Americans identify with Harvey Pekar. The quote comes from the scene where Pekar wakes with a start and grumble-barks “I have a job!” Is he reassuring himself? You bet; here’s a man who’s got it bad but knows how much worse it can be, here’s a man who needs the pittance he makes. But it’s also a lament; see the movie or read the comics and you get a good sense of the crap job he has.
It’s worse than my job, I’ll admit that, much worse. But there’s a greater Crap Job, a polyester-clad, pasty-faced god in the modern pantheon — and when Pekar woke up and called its name in American Splendor, I laughed and felt a small, tragic shiver of recognition at the same time. (Hell, that’s the whole movie for you — tragic laughter.) Me, I’ve got a decent job with decent pay, but sometimes I wake up on weekday mornings with a knee on the fluorescent-lit altar of the god of punch clocks, rayon neckties, carpal tunnel syndrome, customer service training videos, and non-dairy coffee lightener, and something in me grunts “I have a job” in that same relieved/despairing tone.
Because then I get up from my comfortable bed and eat organic cereal with soy milk and walk along hardwood floors to my hot shower. I put on decent clothes and drive my decent car to a business neighborhood where I am smack in the middle of a job spectrum that runs from lawyers and lobbyists to raving beggars.
Ratchet down a few spaces toward the purple end of that spectrum and you get Harvey Pekar, file clerk. Famous author of a respected counterculture comic, icon and iconoclast, but a career file clerk and Crap Job acolyte. In Cleveland.
The movie and the comics are about more than “I have a job,” of course. The line one of dozens of really good, really moving moments in the picture. You ought to see it. And read it, I know I want to. Pekar — don’t get me wrong, he’s not exactly a likeable character — but he’s one of the few average-working-schmuck voices with such a wide reach.
And for more on Crap Job and his minions, read Iain Levison’s A Working Stiff’s Manifesto. Levison is also not a likeable character, and his memoir is certainly not as moving, but it’s familiar in the same way.