Harvey Pekar, Ego and Hubris: The Michael Malice Story (Ballantine Books, 2006). 160 pp. (hardcover) $19.95
by Jared Gardner
I graduated from Stuyvesant High School better than a decade before Michael Malice, yet after reading Ego and Hubris I remain absolutely certain I went to high school with him. Then again, didn’t we all? The self-proclaimed genius who sat in the back of every classroom smirking at his teachers and his fellow-classmates; the one person (even at a geek school like Stuyvesant) who actually knew his IQ score (how on earth does anyone under the age of 40 know their IQ score?); the compulsive compiler of all the failures of his peers and their daily failures to recognize his infinite worth. I have long forgotten the vital statistics of my own personal “Michael Malice,” but the basic outline remains. Self-righteous, pigheaded, an injustice-collector with photographic memory—this was the kid who knew he was smarter than everyone in a self-proclaimed “smart kid” school, and it was only his noble unwillingness to go along with the bullshit of the status quo that kept those qualities from being properly recognized. I hated that kid a quarter century ago. I thought he was a lazy, self-justifying prick, and I was happy when I finally left such prigs behind forever (or so I thought). Then I went into academia, but that is another (long) story.
For reasons known only to him, Harvey Pekar decided that Michael Malice’s petty story of tedious revenge and overstated justification was worthy of the forum of American Splendor and Gary Drumm, Pekar’s longtime artist-collaborator. More implausibly, Pekar and Ballantine Books have determined that Malice’s unbelievably tedious and relentless monologue merits a hardcover book (Pekar’s first). After spending a few hours with Pekar’s new book, I wondered why Malice hadn’t found his true calling—the one we all knew those kids in high school would end up with: serial killer or politician. Instead, Malice expects us to somehow endorse—even celebrate—several of his life decisions: his decision to cut all ties with his family for such unforgivable sins as telling him he needed to eat more; his decision to give up the advantages accrued to him by his Republican party connections and his business major from Bucknell to take on a career as a full-time temp; and his petty (and always disappointingly dull) revenge plots against those who dared to thwart him on his path to “glory.” We are supposed to believe the man is a genius because he tells us so, over and over again, and apparently Pekar believes it as well. But there is little in the story he tells to convince me.
In reading Pekar’s American Splendor over the course of many years, one can see certain qualities in Malice with which he might have identified: the working class origins, the sense of his innate superiority, the profound conviction that he was born for something better, something that would realize his potential. All of these are qualities one also finds in Pekar. But for Pekar, the ego and hubris are always accompanied by self-doubt, self-loathing, and by a deep sense of the absurdity of it all (including both megalomania and self-loathing). These latter qualities are entirely missing from Malice’s work, and the rest is a one-dimensional story of an ultimately one-dimensional man—one whose entire life mission has been to have an opportunity to tell his own story and to cast judgment on his inferiors. This is not a story worthy of Pekar’s talents or time, and even Dumm, who offers a very competent but cold and mechanical take on Malice and his environments, seems a bit bored by the whole thing.
Pekar offers a short afterward to Ego and Hubris suggesting that, whatever one might ultimately think of Malice, “to familiarize oneself with his history and compare it to one’s own can lead to incidents of self-discovery.” This indeed has been the mantra of American Splendor these past three decades, and it has been one (however new-agey it sounds) that has the ring of truth to it when reading the best of Pekar’s work. But here, the only self-discovery you are likely to make is that you have just spent far more time with Michael Malice than you ever would have voluntarily done had Pekar’s name not been on the cover. And—god help you—you have paid for the privilege.