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A Big Box Beat

The Beats: A Graphic HistoryThe Beats: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar

Reviewed by Richard Meltzer
The Oregonian

Since the release of Allen Ginsberg's deluxe, oversized Photographs in 1991, there has been a steady flow of coffee table offerings by and about authors of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac's posthumous Some of the Dharma in 1997, The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats in '99, Matt Theado's The Beats: A Literary Reference in '01, Fernanda Pivano's Beat and Pieces in '05, and Chris Felver's Beat in '07.

Given the proclivities of the marketplace, many more such whatsems are to be expected, a dicey outcome to say the least. From where I sit, Beat as literature and lore, text and tale -- as simple a pleasure as watching rain fall, or a cat cleaning itself -- is oddly served by packagings so lush, high tone, padded with surplus. Regardless of whatever "wider accord" might be sprinkled in the process on the Beat oeuvre, context is squandered, human scale is lost and genuinely interesting real lives are pampered to the flashpoint of celebrity glitz.

And now, dig it: a coffee-tabler that attempts the above, fails, and pratfalls in the opposite direction, playing to a perennial cliche -- that, far from elegant, things Beat are indeed shabby. The Beats: A Graphic History is as shabby as a Wal-Mart in Dubuque.

Written principally by Harvey Pekar, Mr. Graphic Splendor himself, and edited by some Ivy League academic, it contains more factual errors than any prior Beat book of comparable length. At the celebrated Six Gallery reading of 1955, for instance, Gary Snyder read A Berry Feast, not The Berry Piece. Kenneth Rexroth collaborated with Charles Mingus not during World War II, but in 1958. Amiri Baraka attended Howard, not Harvard, University. Philip Whalen returned to the U.S. in 1971, not the '90s, was ordained as a Buddhist monk in the Bay Area, not Japan, and died in 2002 -- he certainly wasn't alive (as alleged) at the time of publication (et cetera). Doesn't anyone fact-check anymore?

As if such hokum weren't enough, the graphics really pile on the embarrassment. To artist Ed Piskor, the faces of three main players are variations on the same generic mug: Kerouac is a blandly handsome boyish male, something like Jimmy Connors; Ginsberg is more or less that plus glasses, and later a beard (on Page 38, it's Jack, inexplicably, who has specs); William Burroughs is a rougher version of same, with crow's feet and fedora.

Joan Vollmer, Burroughs' dark-haired wife, is changed to a blonde. Naomi Ginsberg, Allen's mother, is Bette Midler with an Afro. The cover image of Michael McClure is basically that of guitarist Bob Weir. Robert Duncan, famously cross-eyed, is rendered un-crossed, a lookalike (by turns) for Jerry Brown, Keanu Reeves and Andy Kaufman. John Clellon Holmes, the biggest square of the bunch, is pictured as a hepcat.

Even when copping direct from photos, you have to know what you're doing, and Piskor is often clueless. Working from an iconic shot of Herbert Huncke, shirtless, on Burroughs' Texas farm, he substitutes Burroughs' face for Huncke's.

What a cheesy, pointless book.

Richard Meltzer is a Portland writer and the author of A Whore Just Like the Rest and Autumn Rhythm, among many other books.

Books mentioned in this post

6 Responses to "A Big Box Beat"

    MrJM July 30th, 2009 at 8:08 am

    "What a cheesy, pointless book."

    But I can still buy one for $22.00, right?


    s h a r o n July 30th, 2009 at 9:31 am

    Wow. Thanks, Richard. Who woulda thunk?

    Go for it, MrJM, and why not give us your take on it, too.

    LouWeltch July 30th, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Sad to hear that Harvey Pekar -- a sharp guy, usually -- has squeezed out this puddle of plop. Thanks for the head's up, Meltzer.

    ThemstheBreaks July 31st, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    "Cheesy"? Did a published reviewer from a major metropolitan (and, might I add, award-winning) newspaper just close his review with this: "What a cheesy, pointless book." I appreciate your call to arms for more fact-checking in historical reference books, and I'm not defending "The Beats"--haven't read nor seen it--but, Mr. Meltzer, you're a critical reviewer, and yet it appears you have little concern for choosing your own words. Seems a bit of a kettle v. pot scenario.

    And stop trying to take Dubuque down with you.

    Richard von Busack December 3rd, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Haven't read the book yet, but "cheesy" is exactly the kind of word that ought to be used in more literary criticism--rereading R.M.'s summing up of Bukowski in Autumn Rhythm, for instance, makes me wish he was doing more reviews, somewhere, anywhere. Too bad the publishers of today are such a bunch of capons.

    pickle December 3rd, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    i couln't agree more with both r.m. and r.v.b. i fully expected to enjoy this book having read the beat writers extensively and always respected pekar's work and i have to say that cheesy and pointless is exactly the way i would describe it for all the same reasons r.m. stated. mr. meltzer, you simply rock. why aren't you writing more reviews these days? please?

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