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Book Review: Harvey Pekar's The Beats

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Harvey Pekar, graphic novel writer of American Splendor fame, is the star name on this graphic history of the Beats. Pekar's writing style -- flat to the point of being affectless, and deliberately devoid of sentimentality -- makes for an unexpected, new way of looking at the three primary Beat writers, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. At least I guess portraying them as nearly dysfunctional sleazeballs is pretty new. Other, minor figures among the Beats fare decidedly better in this particular history.

Since Pekar isn't one for idealizing and fawning over heroes, his prose found a perfect match in artist Ed Piskor, whose equally affectless, dingy style dominates the look of this book. The first half of The Beats, which tells the stories of the three aforementioned writers, will not please readers who've bought into the Beat myths: "brave, enlightened souls of the 1950s leading the way to the future by ripping through the fabric of repressive, conformist society," etc., etc. It's not that Pekar slams the Beats, he merely relates details of their lives that are usually glossed over by fans. Little things like, say, being accessories after the fact to murder, or near-psychopathic levels of self-absorption. Pekar, in other words, is more interested in how these guys lived their lives, the things they did in the world, than whatever cosmic insights into life and lit they derived from their experiences.

Pekar's version of the Beats' early days could be a worthwhile reality check for longtime Beat worshippers. The number of times Kerouac selfishly ignored others' well-being, not to mention the sliminess of Burroughs' junkie days, as frankly portrayed here, should be effective buffers against further sentimentalizing of the holy Beat trinity. (One reviewer has written that, "Though Ginsberg is inspiring at times, Burroughs makes me want to get a government job and go to church.")

The problem here is that Pekar winds up downplaying, if not ignoring, the trio's inner lives. After all, it was the Beats' inner lives, and the ideas they spawned, that attracted most of their original fans -- notwithstanding the boom in "road trips" and hitchhiking during the 1960s.

The Beats loosens up more in the second half, as Pekar and writers such as Paul Buhle and Joyce Brabner -- and, thankfully, artists other than Piskor -- tell the stories of the "minor Beats." Their takes on the likes of Gregory Corso, the amazing poet/activist Gary Snyder, Robert Creely, and the women who hung out with and around the Beats (and who were generally treated, in classic '50s style, as so much meat), bring needed variety, lively critiques, and even revelations (I had never heard of wild man, and forerunner of the Beats, Slim Brundage, but I can't wait to read more about him now). Artwork by Jerome Neukirch for the Brundage chapter, and Brabner's writing about "Beatnik Chicks" are standouts -- such standouts, in fact, that the book would have been better served by its editor if he had let them show up earlier in the narrative. In the end, The Beats is a fascinating but frustrating, and finally, inadequate history of postwar America's most influential literary "movement."

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