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JACK WEATHERLY: Key’s Mississippi memoir is a comic triumph



We gathered atop Petit Jean Mountain in Arkansas four summers ago looking for something very important, something vital to each of us.

Our voices.

We were not in a yodeling contest, though no doubt some of that was going on.

This was about writing. We had been chosen for the Oxford American Summit for Ambitious Writers.

That “ambitious” part struck me as pretentious. But, well, that’s what we said we were.

In the nonfiction group that I was in was one Harrison Scott Key.

Sounds like a cross between a one-tune wonder who composed the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and a famous American novelist, doesn’t he?

Hear ye — Harrison Scott Key has found his voice.

It is a comic voice of that puts him in the choir with other humorists you may have heard of —

such as P.J. O’Rourke, Roy Blount Jr., Garrison Keillor, Lewis Grizzard, Dave Barry and others. Maybe even Mark Twain.

“The World’s Largest Man” is a triumph of a comic memoir.

Key was yanked from what he viewed as an idyllic childhood world of suburban Memphis and rudely transplanted into the red soil of rural Mississippi.

(Having grown up in Memphis, I want to tell him it ain’t no paradise, not for my part at least.)

Anyone who has ever tried to write about his family in a serious way knows this — it takes courage.

Especially if you are writing about people who are still alive, and don’t have the screen of fiction to shield you.

The man of  the title is Key’s father, a huge, tough, seemingly insentient being who lived in a world in which, as Key says throughout, the male of the species was born to kill animals and kick ass.

The author was not born that way. He’d just  as soon be a mama’s boy and help her shop for groceries and help out in the kitchen. But no way.

Not if his father had anything to do with it. And he did, big time, doing his best and worst to prevent him for being a sissy.

Life’s hard and often disappointing. You can take it one of two ways. Sorrow and bitterness, or laughter.

Thank goodness Key chose the latter. As mentioned, life’s hard enough anyway. It sets you up and knocks  you down.

Key, on the other hand, sets you up and then slaps you with a totally unexpected punch line:



We hear you don’t want children,” my wife’s aunt said, arms crossed, standing at my front door . . . .”

“Eventually,” I said.

“We’re praying that God will change your heart.”

“Yeah, well, what if Jesus doesn’t want us to have babies?” I said.

“Then he will close her womb,” the aunt said, pointing at my wife’s abdomen.

This is what happens when you move back to Mississippi. Your wife’s relatives show up and try to make your penis a part of God’s plan.


Key gets a lot of mileage out of the P word and variations. Along with “feces,” and variations, including poop and the S word.

I have put down many a book — some considered famous and classics  — and still have not finished them.

They don’t let me forget it. They sneer from my bookshelves. I even resorted to reading the last 100 pages of William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” It was a terrific ending of a book. Now I feel less guilty when I see its spine peeking from the crowd of other volumes.

I won’t finish a bad book, just because I made the mistake of putting it into my hands and struggled through, say, 50 or 100 pages.

How good is Key’s book? Let me say that there is a reward on every page. But it’s not, as they say, a page-turner, driven by a taut plot.

I read all 331 pages over two days. I am not a speed reader.

Earlier this year, I reread Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast,” a memoir about being young and about to get real famous in the Paris of the 1920s.

There is something delectable on about every page, which is aided by the fact that he dropped names of world-famous people like nobody’s business.

There is something about men and their fixation on their most private part.

Hemingway tells of his friend Scott Fitzgerald being worried about that, that it might be insufficient.

Of course, it had much to do with his wife, Zelda, considered a Southern beauty though I could never see it, who eventually would go mad.

Hemingway says he took his literary friend to the Louvre and they made notes about classical sculptures of nude males. Hem offers no evidence it did any good for Scott.

Harrison Scott Key married a woman whose beauty he compares favorably to Princess Grace of Monaco, formerly known as actress Grace Kelly. (By the way, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s full name is Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, for his distant cousin. I’ll have to ask Key about his name when he comes to Lemuria Books on June 18 to sign books at 5 and read at 5:30.)

The Keys’ life eventually takes them to Savannah, where they take up housekeeping with their three, count ’em, three daughters.

He is a professor of English at a small college, and a workaholic, burning the early-morning oil working on his writing that he says heretofore had been a flop.

It’s a “transitional” neighborhood, meaning it could go either way, but is stuck in funky low gear. He gave their colorful neighbors special names, such as Jimmy Crack Corn (“long for crack”) and Lady Thunderdome.

Their life takes on a National Lampoon air, a downscale Chevy Chase kind of place.

But all is not laughter. Key encounters his mid-life crisis, maritally, psychologically and physically. His spouse is on the verge of becoming a mad housewife. And, of course, our hero seems oblivious.

Oddly enough, he discovers he is like his father in that respect.

But with some real soul searching, aided by the balm of humor (at least for the reader), the crisis is overcome.

And we’re all the better for it, and on every flippin’ page of this book.

» Contact Mississippi Business Journal staff writer Jack Weatherly at jack.weatherly@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1015.



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