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Malice Afterthought

 

American Splendor: Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story

Harvey Pekar, Gary Dumm

Ballantine Books, 2006

Rating: 3.5

 

Posted: September 2, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau

The success of the American Splendor movie has afforded Harvey Pekar what heís always wanted: to cash in on what little pop-cultural cachet he possesses in order to collect more writing work, including a couple of book contracts. Last yearís unflinching and slightly unfocused memoir The Quitter was one result; Ego & Hubris is another. Both, in their own ways, are diversions from the slice-of-life vignettes, autobiographical snapshots and occasional music essays that made up most of his American Splendor output. But not huge diversions: The Quitter, for example, was basically a Splendor story expanded to book length, a brave, obsessive and self-critical look at the roots of the writerís many neuroses and his unique worldview.

Likewise, Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story is a book-length examination of the traits, beliefs and biography of a peculiar individual. This time, however, itís not Pekar himself (as the title pretty much gives away) but one real-life Michael Malice, as self-centered, arrogant and unlikable a character as any author could dream up. Pekar more or less gives over more than 150 pages to Malice, who relates his life story in his own voice, and itís easy to see why Pekar found him a fascinating subject. Heís cruel, bitter, vindictive and combative.

Whatís less clear is what weíre supposed to take away from Maliceís story. One might argue that Pekar is merely chronicling one manís story, just as heís done in American Splendor, and leaving us to find our own answers -- or even just to mutter to ourselves, ďWow, what a dick.Ē Thatís valid, but one can conversely argue that itís something of a copout. Pekar has certainly painted unflattering pictures of himself in American Splendor, but what makes those stories interesting -- and, perhaps more importantly, relatable -- is his acknowledgment that heís not normal, that heís a victim of his own neuroses and shortcomings. Pekar isnít always apologetic about the way he is -- he understands that, for all the trauma he causes himself, these aspects of himself are also responsible for his creativity. Implicit -- and sometimes explicit -- in Pekarís self-examination is a concession: ďI know youíre not supposed to act this way,Ē he seems to say, ďbut itís what Iíve got and I might as well try to learn from it and perhaps do better.Ē

Michael Malice, by contrast, never questions himself, never wavers in his belief that he is smarter than everyone else -- that he is right and they are wrong. And thatís all the justification he needs to treat others boorishly. He spitefully mails a pimply former co-worker a tube of acne cream. He antagonizes his college professors; he take delight in the fact that the wife of someone he dislikes has died from cancer. He gets a security guard fired for reacting to his provocations.

The closest Ego & Hubris comes to a cathartic moment is when Malice lands a creative job in television. ďI was right in kindergarten. I was right in second grade. I was right in high school, in college, at work,Ē he says. Getting a job where heís paid to think is a validation -- proof that heís been right to belittle the beliefs of those who think differently than he does, to deride others for their ignorance, to take every conflict personally and to overreact to every imagined slight.

Thatís all well and good -- if Malice wants to feel heís been unjustly persecuted all his life, and that thus heís been within his rights to live as an asshole, well, itís a free country. But itís Pekarís book, at least nominally. Why doesnít he challenge his subject at all, or at least interject to let the reader know what he thinks of all this? Pekar doesnít call Malice on any of his actions -- he doesnít react at all, that we can see. When he appears at all, itís in a scene where Michael writes to him and goes to meet him; itís a re-enactment.

Itís one thing to present someone elseís story as a short feature in an anthology -- in that instance, itís easy to write it off as a comics-vťritť sketch; its very existence seems to imply, ďIsnít this guy nuts?Ē In a longer work, though, you risk seeming to endorse such behavior, or at least to condone it. Pekarís spent decades building an angry-guy persona; but this guy, he doesnít get angry with -- at least not that we see.

Heís also spent decades establishing himself as a contrarian everyman willing to take a long, hard look at himself and catalog his flaws for all to see. If he were telling us Maliceís story, maybe weíd get some of that. But by letting Malice randomly narrate his own tale, he fails the reader here, as well. Since Pekar has slapped his American Splendor brand on this book, weíre predisposed to think that weíll gain some sort of insight. Even a one-page sketch about the joys of a glass of lemonade has a point to it, a little bullet of a message about the importance of enjoying lifeís simple pleasures. But Ego & Hubris just feels pointless.

Whether he just never thought to put himself in the story to call Malice out on his behaviors, or didnít want to risk diluting Maliceís voice, or just didnít feel like bothering, the result is the same: We put down Ego & Hubris with a mental shrug. So Malice is an asshole. Well, so what? The worldís full of assholes. What makes this one so special? What makes him worthy of 152 pages of pettiness and rationalization? Simply put, if we learn nothing from his story, then the answer is likewise nothing.

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 Ratings Key:
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 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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