Harrison Scott Key's The World’s Largest Man is a grim, tender memoir
At some point, every boy sees his father as a larger-than-life hero, or possibly a villain, or maybe one of those bold, eccentric character actors from the grainy movie that is everyone’s childhood, playing over in one’s mind like a cinema marathon. I hope that’s true, because the father stays alive in that way, after he’s passed away, inside the unwritten memoir of each life.
The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key blows up the memory of the author’s dad like a dynamite load blasting out a stubborn stump. It’s a touching, incendiary, hellaciously hilarious act of literature; a send-up and a tribute and a philosophic credo, “all snorked up together into the nose and shot out like a snot rocket” (the author’s choice of words there).
By the end of the book, Harrison Scott Key has reached middle age, comfortably ensconced in middle-class intelligentsia, with a successful career as a freelance humor writer and a writing professor at Savannah College of Art and Design. He has three mostly angelic daughters (“better than any number of animal heads”) and a long-suffering wife—a requisite for any writer, if book dedications are to be believed.
That’s the second half of this ambitious memoir, positioning the author’s NPR-listening, suburb-dwelling adulthood against the backdrop set by his gun-loving, ass-whupping, louder-than-fiction father.
In the book’s first half, other characters in Key’s childhood include his mother, older brother Bird, and a variety of scurrilous male acquaintances all renamed “Tom” or “Thomas” or “Tommy” to shield the author from their armed retaliation. However, the memoir centers on Key’s father, Pop, a flesh-and-blood colossus with the strengths of a Hemingway hero and the weaknesses of a Faulkner scoundrel. His father has “the emotional tenderness of a Soviet farm tractor.” He is the “Incredible Hulk with a heart condition and a comb-over.”
Pop’s greatest joy in life is dragging his two sons out of a warm bed to kill and butcher innocent woodland creatures, which horrifies young Harrison, who prefers acting and literature and grocery shopping with his mother. Pop beats his children violently with a belt for petty infractions, and the household is fraught with tension. The author vividly paints his father as a boiling volcano, a Neanderthal, and a virulent racist, and yet…
And yet, Pop conceives the idea to assemble and coach a baseball team of black Caribbean orphans, although he won’t allow his son to befriend an African-American playmate in racially segregated Mississippi.
Writes Key: “He had his issues with black skin, but was drawn inexorably toward boys with no fathers, black and white, a gravitational pull stronger than history.” Both halves of the book—childhood and adulthood—resonate with such taut sentences that expand in the reader’s mind, giving depth to the broadly comic (and sharply pathetic) episodes in Key’s remembrance. For example:
“Sports taught us a lot as young southern men, mostly how to hurt each other in exchange for the praise of our fathers.”
“[Pop’s] greatest lesson was the one he never said out loud, the thing a father should do, which is this: Be there. Always be there. And never stop being there, until you can’t be there anymore.”
Each of the 22 chapters delineates a finite aspect of memory: Southern storytelling, “doe day” in hunting season, gruesome encounters with dying animals, Pop getting even with his boss at work. The chapters flow chronologically from Key’s regrettable boyhood move from Memphis to rural Mississippi, through a midpoint episode where his father beats him with a belt for the final time at age 17, to the inevitable death of his father in the final episode.
By dividing the book between his childhood and adulthood, Key explores the parallel path that a son walks beside his father. It’s an ambitious task, to make us laugh and cringe, to stare intently and turn away in distaste—and it works powerfully well. The writer’s palette is rich, eclectic, and more than a little absurd: Greek mythology, children’s Claymation movies, gun and hunting lore, logo characters for children’s enema products, Old Testament retributive justice, Bee Gees’ songs.
In my favorite chapter, “The Horror, the Horror,” Key’s wife becomes Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as she tries to potty train their first daughter. It may be more memorably grim than the original. This memoir is altogether memorable, grim, original, and worth the read.
Harrison Scott Key gives a reading open to the public at Gailor Hall Auditorium, Sewanee School of Letters, at 4:30 p.m. Central time on Wednesday, June 24.