Harrison Scott Key, The World's Largest Man: a memoir (New York: Harper, 2015), 336 pages plus 15 bonus pages including an essay by the author on memoirs along with additional information about the author.
Last week I attended a reading by an author at the Book Lady's Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia. I heard about the reading from a friend on Facebook and the author's book sounded interesting, so at the appointed time, I left the slow life of the island for the hustle of the city and the struggle for parking places. Upon entering the bookstore, I was excited to see a stack of yellow paperbacks with deer antlers stacked by the register. "Hot dang," I said to no one in particular, "Patrick McManus has a new book out." Then I saw the author's name, "Harrison Scott Key: the dude doing the reading... The air in my sails begin to wane, the book's color and antlers had gotten me all excited.. But then the reading started. Harrison began by handing out PBRs (yeah, that beer that was cheap when I was in college that is now back in fashion). Harrison wasn't taking any chances with his audience. Lubing us up, he soon had us laughing. By the time he was half way through the reading, I knew I would be buying his book. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, pushing aside two other books that I was reading. Key began his reading by sharing bits of reviews that he's received. In that light and to provide him some new material, let me admit that this book was almost as good as a McManus book.
The World's Largest Man is about Key's father and his own quest to become a father. When Key was a child in elementary school, his father moved the family from Memphis (where you went to church to learn about the dangers of premarital sex) to Mississippi (where you went to church to engage in such sex). (19). According to Key, Mississippi is a state where crazy people believed that what can't be shot should be baptized (16), and children often learn child-birth before long division (37) Here, Key was taught the ways of the woods. One early adventure was dove hunting at daybreak in which he realized that problem with the proverb about the early rising bird getting the worm. They also get murdered. (32) Some readers may be offended by Key's frankness concerning sex (in a few occasions he hints at the involvement of livestock). I wasn't overly shocked as I once had a boss from Mississippi, and remember one night after a few beers he told us about a boy from his school... I've been through Mississippi, but Ron’s stories had always reminded me there was no need to linger there. Key has reminded me again of the wisdom of passing through.
Key keeps the humorous zingers coming as he tells about deer hunting, fighting at school, his first love, football and baseball. He also shares about his father's tough discipline and his mother's love. At times, as the reader, I felt contempt for his father and then at other times, I couldn't help but admire him. Key's old man went out of his way to help children, continuing on coaching little league baseball and football long after his boys had grown up and moved on. Key always felt he was not living up to his father's standards (something most boys feel, or at least I did).
After high school, there is a gap and Key picks up his story when he is in grad school and is married. He worries what his new bride will think of his family and there are some funny episodes around her first visits to Mississippi for holidays. Once they have children, he sees another side of his father. His old man loves grandchildren. Eventually, Key is able to encourage his parents to move to Savannah where he is a professor at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design). A month later, his father dies of a heart attack. In the second part of the book, we see Key's struggling to be a man and protecting his wife and three daughters. Having grown up around guns, he marries a woman who wasn't a "gun person" and so he leaves his guns with his parents. One night, he arms himself with a serrated kitchen knife to check out a possible bad guy. As Key says, "it would have come in handy had he come across an angry Bundt cake." (273) After his father drops off his old shotgun and they experience a break-in, he obtains shells for the shotgun. But then, he realizes it was a foolish idea and adds motion sensor lights outside of his house and an alarm system.
The last part of the book may not carry the humor of the earlier part of the book, but it has an honest feel as Key struggles to learn what it means to be good husband and a good father. There is a tenderness to how he writes about his family and his aging father. Key recalls the old truism from the country that things can kill you can also make you feel alive (238), but a few pages later he acknowledges that what really makes us alive is love. (246). This is a book written in love, which is why I recommend it. McManus has some good competition as does other Mississippi writers such as Willie Morris.
I also liked the supplemental information provided at the end of the book. These include tips about writing about one's family, an essay on memoirs (a term Key detests), more biographical information, and his top ten list of funny writers of which I've only read four (Charles Portis, Douglas Adams, Flannery O'Connor and Mark Twain). Key acknowledge at the front of the book that he had changed many of the names (since most of them have guns).