Harry Crews starts his 1978 memoir “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place” with a paradoxical “memory” involving a father he never knew and a time before he was born. It turns out to be one of many tales the prolific Georgia author had inherited from kinfolk. “Nothing is allowed to die in a society of storytelling people,” Crews decrees, italicizing the phrase dare anyone miss his point.
In “The World’s Largest Man,” Harrison Scott Key writes his own biography of a place similar to Crews’ Bacon County, revealing how little some parts of the “Rough South” had changed even two generations later. Growing up in Coldwater, Miss., among a populace obsessed with guns, God and football, Key details the awkward coming of age of a bookworm who’d rather read about rabbits than skin them. The witty, moving memoir begins with a bang: “They say the South is full of storytellers, but I am unconvinced. … At least this was my childhood experience in Mississippi, where there was very little to do but shoot things or get them pregnant.”
The narrator is 6 years old when his dad, a traveling asphalt salesman, moves the family from Memphis to rural Mississippi in hopes that country life will help the boy and his brother grow up to be real men. “The Farm” that his old man speaks of so nostalgically is just a brick ranch with “a bad roof and a gravity problem,” no livestock in sight.
Key clings to memories of Chuck E. Cheese and MTV in this difficult new world where classmates have rickets and rifle collections, and general stores hang snapshots of freshly killed animals. Even after trading in his parachute pants for camouflage coveralls, he can’t match his brother Bird’s natural-born sportsman skills. Key’s temperament owes more to his mother, a middle-school teacher, than to his dad, “a large granite slab with eyeglasses and a heart condition.” What follows is the unhappiest era of his youth, a blood-soaked comedy of embarrassing hunting trips and “languorous rural protractions, punctuated by moments of terror and death.”
Key writes humor columns for the Oxford American and teaches English at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He crafts sentences as clever as rattlesnakes; you can sometimes hear the quips coming a paragraph away. Others pounce without warning, as in his description of a double-wide trailer: “It might have been a kind of romantic hideaway, if you had kidnapped your lover and planned on turning her hide into a lamp.”
The sardonic tone and spicy language may prompt comparisons to David Sedaris, another humorist who has perfected the narrative stance of put-upon outsider vs. risible eccentrics. Key has a wild Bird, Sedaris a zany Rooster. The awkward family dynamics bring up recollections of Jean Shepherd, while the author’s talent for aphorisms would make Lewis Grizzard chuckle.
Dry comedy keeps the pages turning in early chapters, but droll one-liners do not a memoir make. Key wisely avoids a different sort of “gravity problem” by bringing depth and nuance to the narrative predicament. “The best hunting stories are full of surprise twists and sudden reversals, such as, ‘I went into the woods and shot my brother, but then I learned that he was not my real brother.’” If you hear a hint of Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” in that passage, the echo becomes more obvious with the subsequent chapter title, “The Things They Slaughtered.”
The memoir nearly loses steam on cold and degrading deer-hunting misadventures, but “The Wishbone,” one of its finest essays, arrives right on time. Key moves the action from damp forests to football fields, proving that his troubles run deeper than adjusting to country life. He struggles to live up to the dreams of his father, a football coach and former star athlete. The chapter details Key’s hilarious last game with brutal precision and sets the stage for a bigger discussion about his dad’s inscrutable nature. “He was my great Indian mound, full of bones and secrets.” As in Crews’ memoir, there’s a sense that Key is searching for a father he never knew, a mastodon of a man hidden in plain sight.
The memoir is also a rumination on storytelling. Early on, Key tries to sort out conflicting accounts of family history and grapples with a growing attraction to literature. “But books were full of stories and stories were full of lies and lies hurt Jesus’ feelings, so I didn’t know what to think.” Later, this predilection blossoms into something bigger than a career, more like a life’s calling.
Some of the writing in “The World’s Largest Man” appeared in different form elsewhere, which might explain the occasional habit of repeating phrases and parts of anecdotes. Even when revisiting scenes explored in previous chapters, the crisp prose and affectionate wit keep boredom at bay.
This trend becomes more obvious in later chapters as the focus shifts from childhood to parenthood. Key squeezes in enough material about his marriage and three daughters to fill almost a second volume. The choice to combine these lightweight domestic stories with the tall tales of Mississippi is explained in the poignant final act, which sheds light on the title, “The World’s Largest Man.” Key’s enigmatic dad proves to be human after all; his failing health brings about a stirring contemplation of fatherhood. “Our mothers, most of them, tell us who they are. They tell everything. … But our fathers are always aliens.” That is, as the memoir demonstrates, until you become one yourself.
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